During the runup to Obama’s announcement of his pick for the Supreme Court, Jeffrey Rosen wrote a piece for the New Republic’s website, passing on anonymous slurs against Sonia Sotomayor, amounting to a characterization of her as a cartoonish loose cannon: “not that smart and kind of a bully,” in the words of one of Rosen’s anonymous sources. In retrospect the piece looks not only irresponsible but plain wrong.
Glenn Greenwald, who’s been dogging this controversy from the start, has more today, in the wake of an NPR report on the controversy.
What’s most interesting to me is Rosen’s attempt to wriggle out of responsibility for his poor judgment by dismissing his piece as mere “blogging”:
its author, the noted legal writer Jeffrey Rosen, says he’s been burned by the episode, too — enough that he’s swearing off blogging for good.
“It was a short Web piece,” Rosen says now, sounding a little shell-shocked. “I basically thought of it as a blog entry.”…
Rosen says he’s drawn a lesson from how his initial essay was treated by people of both ideological stripes. He won’t be blogging any more. He wants to spend more time with the material before hitting “send.”
So Rosen had written a 1000-word article for the New Republic website. But somehow he was seduced into lowering his standards by the nature of the medium!
In this ludicrous excuse Rosen resembles another New Republic scribe, that titan of responsibility-evasion Lee Siegel. Siegel, you’ll recall, was the hard-charging cultural critic who got caught in “sockpuppetry”: adopting a pseudonym in comment threads on his own writing so he could sing his own praises and slam his detractors. Then he wrote an angry book attacking the entire Web for its “thuggish anonymity,” and dismissed his own ethical lapse in one paragraph as a harmless little joke, a mere bagatelle. (I deal with Siegel’s case at greater length in Say Everything.)
Both these writers’ behavior displays a simple lack of respect for the form of blogging and for its practitioners. Instead of admitting, “I dropped my professional standards” or “I goofed,” their stance becomes “I visited the wrong part of town — hung out with the wrong crowd — I won’t be lowering myself again!”
In the Rosen-Siegel continuum, apparently, simply writing for the Web is a dangerous undertaking than can force otherwise high-minded and punctilious scribes to lose their ethical bearings. To blog is to slum, and risk staining your shirt. As Greenwald points out: “Countless people who write blogs every day — all year long — give ample thought before ‘hitting the send button,’ and do so without descending into irresponsible gossip-mongering and what The New York Times Editorial Page called ‘character assassination’ and ‘uninformed and mean-spirited chattering’ driven by ‘anonymous detractors’ that was ‘beyond the pale of reasonable debate.’ ”
- May 31, 2009 @ 12:01:16 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- May 31, 2009 @ 07:16:39 by Scott Rosenberg
- May 31, 2009 @ 07:16:07 by Scott Rosenberg
- May 31, 2009 @ 07:15:43 by Scott Rosenberg
Clearly, you went through this post with a fine-toothed comb before hitting the “send” button.
Of course blogging entails different norms and standards than does writing for a print publication. That doesn’t absolve writers of responsibility for what they write, but to gloss over the way the “say everything” culture of blogging shapes what’s published seems disingenuous.
Nick — it’s true; my typo level was unusually high on this one because I had a morning appointment to rush off to. I’m fixing them now.
But the distinction between “blogging” and “writing for a print publication” isn’t at issue here. Any reader of Rosen’s piece on the web might have assumed — as I did when I first read it — that it was republished from the print edition. Rosen wasn’t blogging, and the flaws in his piece had nothing to do with haste and everything to do with established journalistic practices. And if his piece *had* been a blog post, the issue would still stand: The problems were with the writer’s content and practice, not with his choice of form.
No one, least of all me, would suggest there are no differences between the culture of blogging and the culture of print. The pattern that’s worth noticing here is the self-contradictory stance toward anonymity on the part of the DC culture that the New Republic is a part of: We have a critique of the Web that casts “anonymity” (and “thuggish anonymity”) as one of its culturally corrosive characteristics; and we also have a culture of Beltway journalism that positions itself as more trustworthy than the blogging masses yet defends the use of anonymous sources to orchestrate character-assassination campaigns.
Rosen is trying to defend a piece of shoddy journalism — whether online or in print makes no difference — by saying “Gee, I was really only blogging, but I won’t do it again.” He’s an authority in his field (with a big piece in NYT mag today) and knew perfectly well that his 1000-word piece would play a significant part in the Supreme Court nomination discussion. Now he’s changing the subject from his own missteps to some putative generic failing of the medium. It’s a bit of divert-the-eyes sleight-of-hand — akin to the defenders of those newspapers that got taken in by the recent Wikipedia hoax who believe the incident primarily demonstrated flaws in Wikipedia’s process rather than problems with the newspapers’.
Paul K Guinnessy
Physics Today’s web site, which I run, we have specifically written into our charter by our governing board that the same print editorial standards are expected for online material.
Treating the web site differently from the print in terms of journalistic integrity just weakens your brand, which can be a dangerous trend if more individuals read your product online than in print.
I find it odd that Rosen’s article is referred to as a “gossipy hit piece” When I read it when it first came out it didn’t strike me as a “hit piece” at all. It seemed a bit “gossipy” but no more gossipy than anything I read in the New York Times, Salon, TNR or the Huffington Post on a daily basis.
Do you really think Rosen was trying to write a hit-piece – something designed to undermine Sotomayor’s candidacy? I think he was just pulling together a bunch of raw sources with the understanding that the readers can tell the difference between people who work directly with her and those that don’t. The tone of the article wasn’t overly critical – I think the fact that certain statements have been seized upon by Sotomayor’s critics have suddenly thrust Rosen into the “wrong” camp – and I’m sure he’s horrified at supplying Rush and O’Reilly with talking points.
From my perspective, the most interesting thing about this so-called controversy is the ferocity of the criticism of Rosen and his discomfort at being seen as someone trying to stand in the way of a president he is such a great admirer of.
Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen are both proponents of this particular fallacy, along with the quick-to-comment Nick Carr. What they are doing is slumming – giving themselves the vicarious thrill of pretending to be like their imagined debased bloggers, then brushing it off. More here: