Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The New York Times's Inconsistent Standards Drove Slate Star Codex To Self-Cancel

By Robby Soave - June 24, 2020 at 10:18AM
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Scott Alexander is the pseudonymous proprietor of Slate Star Codex, a science and history blog well-liked by many libertarians and neoliberals. On Monday, he took the drastic step of deleting the blog after a New York Times reporter threatened to reveal his name in a forthcoming article.

"I'm not sure what happens next," wrote Alexander in his last and currently only blog post. "In my ideal world, the New York Times realizes they screwed up, promises not to use my real name in the article, and promises to rethink their strategy of doxxing random bloggers for clicks."

In an interview with Reason, Alexander explained he had recently learned that a New York Times tech reporter was working on a story about Slate Star Codex. The reporter had contacted several of Alexander's friends, as well as a former girlfriend. Eventually, the Times reached out to Alexander, who agreed to speak about his blog off the record. He also asked the reporter not to divulge his real name in the article, but this request was rejected.

"We had a discussion about why I wanted my real name out of the story, where I said most of the same things I said in the public post," Alexander tells Reason. "He seemed understanding but said his editor absolutely prohibited him from writing it without my name, and he thought the story was important enough that he didn't want to drop it."

The Times declined to comment to Reason, though a spokesperson stressed that "when we report on newsworthy or influential figures, our goal is always to give readers all the accurate and relevant information we can."

This is an unfortunate series of events. Alexander has penned a lot of really great pieces on a wide range of subjects: on Marxism's failings as a science, on the English settlement of the Americas, and on bureaucratic barriers to scientific research, to name just a few. (I would link to them here, but they've all disappeared for the moment.) Indeed, according to several of the people the Times had interviewed, the story was probably going to be a fairly positive one that celebrated Alexander's prescience on some COVID-19 related topics. We don't know for sure since the article isn't available yet. Alexander is hoping that his deletion of the blog will cause the Times reporter to decline to publish, or to publish without revealing Alexander's real name to the world—a practice that has come to be called "doxxing," at least when done by internet trolls.

Of course, if publishing information about a person without their permission is always "doxxing," then the craft of journalism is one nonstop doxxing party. News stories at The New York Times, Reason, and virtually every other publication of some importance frequently contain details that the subjects themselves would have preferred to be omitted. It can hardly be called "doxxing" to reveal that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) is a millionaire who owns three homes, for example.

Doxxing, then, should probably be defined in a more limited way—perhaps as the act of revealing private or personal information about a private or semi-private subject, in a situation where it isn't warranted. But under this definition, it's still hard to see what was about to happen to Alexander as anything other than doxxing.

To underscore how important his anonymity is to him, Alexander titled his farewell post, "NYT Is Threatening My Safety By Revealing My Real Name, So I Am Deleting The Blog." Alexander's reasons for wanting to remain anonymous are twofold: For one, as a person who has staked out well-founded but occasionally controversial positions on hot-button issues—race and IQ science for instance—and courted a passionate base of fans and critics, he has previously received death threats. He does not wish to make it any easier for people to find him.

While I'm largely sympathetic to Alexander's plight, I think it's a bit of an over-dramatization for him to assert that his safety would be seriously undermined by his unmasking. People who are prominent on the internet receive occasional death threats: It's upsetting when it happens, and no one deserves it, but the threats are almost never carried out. By making the matter primarily one of safety, Alexander is essentially mimicking progressive activists who treat discomfort and disagreement as a kind of physical harm. Since I routinely criticize them for this, I would be remiss if I didn't ding Alexander on similar grounds.

But Alexander's other objection to having his name published is quite reasonable: He's a psychiatrist, and in order for him to do his work it's important for his patients not to know all that much about him personally, or about his opinions. And given the cultural moment we are currently living through—involving widespread cancellations or even firings of anyone deemed guilty of problematic or offensive behavior, no matter how trivial, long ago, or ridiculous—Alexander's concern that his employer might decide someone with a national commentary presence is more trouble than they are worth is understandable.

These objections might not be strong enough to derail a critical news story that hinged on Alexander's identity, or one in which the burden of leaving him unnamed was outweighed by some other factor. If Alexander did something that was notable or significant—other than just being a guy with a good blog—a reporter would have to consider naming him. But, by all accounts, the Times story was a puff piece about how great Slate Star Codex was. If that's true, it seems fairly inadvisable to move forward with it despite the subject's vehement objection.

In fact, the Times has made such accommodations in the past. A recent Times profile of the socialist podcasters Chapo Trap House identified one of the members using only his pseudonym, Virgil Texas. (The piece gave one of the podcaster's girlfriends a pseudonym as well.) Neither Texas nor Alexander are truly anonymous: Amateur internet sleuths can uncover their identities fairly quickly. Alexander concedes this point but thinks there's a difference between being relatively (though not completely) anonymous and being named in a New York Times piece. In any case, the fact that the real name was already out there on the internet apparently did not deter the Times from protecting Texas.

Some will no doubt describe this double standard as an example of political bias, but it's probably better described as garden-variety sloppiness. It seems more likely that the Times does not have consistent standards here, and editors alternate between fostering over-reliance on anonymous sources and forbidding the practice.

A 2017 Times piece from the standards editor notes that many stories "present tough decisions—reporting about children, for instance, or people worried about their safety, or others who may be naive about the impact publicity could have on them" and "since no set of guidelines can cover every situation, the best we can do is to try to balance those questions of fairness and privacy with our chief goal: to tell readers what we know." If that's the policy—and if the piece doesn't contain a bombshell that necessitates the use of his name—it's hard to understand why Virgil Texas's request for anonymity is granted but Scott Alexander's is refused.


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