A fascinating thread runs through a pair of this week’s scandals.
First we have two of the top names in Silicon Valley’s old-boy network at odds over some quite possibly illegal boardroom shenanigans at one of its most hallowed companies. In an effort to plug media leaks they were sure emanated from a board member, Hewlett-Packard’s chairman, Patricia Dunn, hired a private consulting firm that apparently hired someone else who obtained private phone records of board members via, not to mince words, fraudulent means.
Those means now bear the delightfully euphemistic label “pretexting,” which sounds like something harmless, out of high school debating. But what we’re really talking about is calling up institutions like phone companies and claiming to be the person whose records you’re trying to obtain. Old-fashioned black-hat hackers used to call this “social engineering.” I’m not a lawyer, and others will determine the precise legality or lack thereof of what went down at H-P; but whatever you call it, it’s deceitful and dishonorable, and that is plainly why Silicon Valley grandee Tom Perkins, whose name bedecks the industry’s most august venture-capital firm, quit the H-P board in a huff. Perkins is now at odds with Valley uber-lawyer Larry Sonsini, who represents H-P’s board and who has been saying that the company did nothing illegal. (Leading technology journalists were also apparently targeted by the H-P-sponsored “pretexting.”)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the New Republic, a little magazine with a venerable history, has suspended one of its critics, Lee Siegel. Siegel was caught posting anonymously on his own blog, under the name “sprezzatura,” singing hosannas to his own genius and lashing out at his critics.
It’s self-evident that there’s something loathsome about any writer who would don a virtual ski-mask in order to post pompous paeans to his own work along the lines of “Siegel is brave, brilliant, and wittier than Stewart will ever be” — and then, when confronted by users who suspect the truth, deny it with “I’m not Lee Siegel, you imbecile. If you knew who I was you and your n + 1 buddies would crap in your pants.” Wit! Intelligence! Grace!
But how, asks Slate’s Jack Shafer, is what Siegel did any different from what legions of blog-commenters do every day in posting anonymous comments? Shafer is too locked into Slate’s contrarian-for-contrarianhood’s-sake stance (a journalistic mode pioneered by Slate founder Michael Kinsley when he ran the New Republic years ago) to grasp the simple and obvious difference: As the author of the blog, Siegel writes from a position of privilege. He can defend his own work from the stage mike without concocting a fake claque to cheer himself. By inventing “sprezzatura” he is not only deceiving his readership, he’s casting doubt on anything anyone has ever posted in favor of his work elsewhere on the Web. Now anytime you read anything nice posted on a blog about Siegel’s work, you’re going to be wondering, is this a real comment? Or is this Siegel playing games?
Anonymity is not a simple good — it’s a complex phenomenon that cuts positively or negatively depending on the power equation in play. When anonymity allows an insider to blow a whistle on corruption, or a dissident in a repressive regime to communicate about atrocities, it is plainly good. When anonymity allows people in positions of power to shrug off responsibility for their words, it’s problematic at least, and often harmful.
Siegel’s “sprezzatura” impersonation is a relatively low-stakes matter; with its exposure the only real harm is to the writer’s own reputation and to his publication’s dignity. But the common practice among denizens of the Bush White House of defending their actions and ambushing their opponents via anonymous, disownable statements shares in Siegel’s dishonor. They’re in power. They control the dialogue. There’s no excuse for them not to stand behind their words — and their record of unwillingness to put their names behind their statements has now fully eroded their credibility.
Back at the H-P boardroom, we have a sort of double-deniability maneuver: a primary act of impersonation on the part of investigators seeking to unmask an anonymous boardroom leaker, and then a secondary act of anonymous distancing on the part of the board and its chairman, who claim they didn’t know what their henchmen were up to. Henry II invented this “plausible deniability” gambit 900 years ago when he wanted to off Thomas Becket; it’s no more credible today.
According to CNET, before he quit the H-P board Perkins suggested that the chairman “just ask the board members if they had leaked information, rather than launch a full-blown investigation, and ask for a private apology.” Good plan. Too bad even this statement is attributed to an anonymous source.
To be fair, Perkins and his adversaries are all now tightly bound in legal webs as to what they can and can’t say. Nonetheless, we’re left with the spectacle of a group of rich, powerful people behaving appallingly. When a corporate board reaches a point as far gone as this, it’s time for everyone to resign. And I don’t mind being quoted on that — by name.
[tags]Hewlett-Packard, anonymous sources, lee siegel[/tags]
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