The Los Angeles Times has disciplined sock-puppeteer columnist Michael Hiltzik.
For traditional media, his crime was pseudonymous posting. That was the gist of most of the published stories about the controversy, including the initial reports in his own paper. And that got wrapped up in LAT ethics policy (“We do not misrepresent ourselves and we do not conceal our affiliation with The Times,” as reported in LA Observed) that sounds like it’s in need of some updating.
Bloggers were fine with the pseudonyms, but thought Hiltzik’s greater sin was the sock-puppetry: using those pseudonyms to talk up Hiltzik’s Golden State Blog both on its pages and at other blogs. If Hiltzik was going to post comments on Golden State as Michael Hiltzik — which he did — then it was deceitful to also comment under any other name.
Views of the appropriate punishment also diverged. Late Friday the LAT announced that Hiltzik would lose his biweekly Business section column and the blog, would be suspended without pay, and would be reassigned. This is one step short of termination.
Even though bloggers were focused on what they perceived to be a greater sin, few were calling for Hiltzik’s head (1, 2, 3). The punishment had already been meted out, virtually instantaneously: post-Patterico, any knowledgeable person reading Hiltzik would henceforth do so with a few extra grains of salt.
This is the most fascinating part of this final chapter in l’affaire Hiltzik. The bloggers who did so much to bring Hiltzik’s deceit to light were far more forgiving than the institution for which he has toiled for over 20 years. The bloggers, it seems, associated Hiltzik’s transgression with Hiltzik himself, not with the LAT. And his punishment would be swift and fair — his devaluation in the marketplace of ideas.
The LAT, on the other hand, saw the incident damaging the entire paper (for what are ethics guidelines but tools to limit institutional embarrassment?). And that is probably wrong. Those who are even aware of the Hiltzik sock-puppet problem — those who read and write certain blogs — have figured out what to do with the information that Hiltzik fakes commenters, and moved on. Those who aren’t aware of the controversy — no doubt the vast majority of the LAT’s readers — have not been affected by the online transgressions of a twice-a-week columnist.
That’s not to say that if I were Editor of the LAT I would have let this pass by. Part of that job is protecting the brand. But rather than highlight Hiltzik’s violation of a dated policy — can no Times staffer ever post pseudonymously? — he should have been disciplined for lacking common sense. Times staffers should be allowed to blog, and even post or comment pseudonymously. They just shouldn’t be stupid about it.
Killing Hiltzik’s print column seems a stretch, unless the notion is to make him quit. His transgressions didn’t affect the print product. The column is not a good use of newsprint — it’s often not about business and it’s excruciatingly biased — but in the increasingly skimpy Times business section, what else do they have? They can’t bring back James Flanigan — can they?
No, the problem was with the blogging. Hiltzik blundered into the nexus of traditional newspapering and blogging, of institutional journalism and personal media. It’s not that they’re incompatible, but Hiltzik — a loose cannon — was the wrong guy to have a foot in each camp. Killing his blog as a LAT property was the right move.*
Hiltzik’s Golden State blog was never to my taste. Hiltzik’s voice is an unpleasant mix of lefty spite, arrogance, and pomposity. He apparently moderated his comments to exclude unpleasant contradictions of his work. I won’t miss it at all.
But … I’d like to see him set up his own blog, separate from the LAT. Let him flog stories to like-minded sites. Let him be a non-profit entrepreneur whose only compensation is the spike in page views from a hit story. Let him post his SiteMeter for all the world to see.
That’s a new media world I look forward to.
* Yes, this is a bit different from what I wrote 10 days ago … but as I put myself in Times Editor Dean Baquet’s position, my thinking … evolved.
We look forward to Hiltzik’s next assignment so we can find out what department at the Times is lower on the totem pole than the Business section. Update: Patterico reports that Nikki Finke says it’s “Sports Investigations” — maybe this position that LA Observed reported on about six weeks ago.
Similar Independent Sources posts:
- Nofanofcablecos gets his LA Times column back; the return of Michael Hiltzik: For us it started as a comment to this Independent Sources post, and the comment "Boy, you guys are stupid." It was signed Nofanofcablecos. After a li ...
- Hiltzik: “they trusted me to know where the limits were”: Hugh Hewitt points us to this Online Journalism Review interview of the Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik. The piece went up last Monday, prior to Pa ...
- STLLATB (Save the Leftist Los Angeles Times Blogger): What to do about Michael Hiltzik? I hope that as editors at the Los Angeles Times ponder that question, they are able to isolate Hiltzik's act from th ...
- Another Brick In The Wall …: In his post last week exposing the Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik as a self promoting sock pupeteer, Patterico noted that "Mikekoshi," one of Hilt ...
- Hiltzik’s Monday Times Column MIA: As LA Observed noted, we are not sure what to read into the absence of Michael Hiltzik's usual business section column but it was not there this morni ...