NRO Outs Kos’ Armando
A substantial controversy is brewing in the blogosphere over National Review Online media columnist Stephen Spruiell’s revealing the identity of Armando, a previously anonymous contributor to DailyKos and other sites.
This quickly led to Armando’s announcement that he was likely giving up the blogging, presumably because of pressure from his employer. (Although, oddly, he has continued posting at Swords Crossed unabated.)
Spruiell followed up:
[M]y goal in writing about Armando’s work was not to “silence” him, as many have suggested. My post raised questions about potential conflicts of interest between his work and his blogging, and I fully expected him to address those questions — so much so that I was trying to anticipate his responses and prepare a rebuttal. The last thing I expected was his announcement that he was planning to quit blogging as a result of my post.
His announcement was so unexpected to me because everything I wrote was based on information that Armando himself had shared with other web sites — his full name, his work affiliation, and his role as a blogger at Daily Kos are all listed together on these sites. He also posted his picture on his bio at another high-profile liberal blog. Yet for some reason, many are claiming that until I published this information, Armando’s identity was a well-kept secret. That is simply false.
Armando’s identity, day job, and the fact that he blogged at Daily Kos is in fact on the program of events at a conference held at the Stanford Law School. I’m not sure which “high-profile liberal blog” Spruiell refers to; it’s not Huffington Post, I checked there. [Update: Spruiell emails that it’s TPM Cafe. The photo used? The same as on his law firm profile page. It’s a flattering pic, to be sure, but hardly the best in cloak and dagger tradecraft.]
It is the consensus at OI that such information should remain private in the absence of a compelling reason for disclosure. That compelling reason appears to be absent here. OI asks that Mr Spruiell take down the relevant information in the spirit of graciousness and respect.
The Statement says, with respect to this issue:
Persons seeking anonymity or pseudonymity online should have their wishes in this regard respected as much as is reasonable. Exceptions include cases of criminal, misleading, or intentionally disruptive behavior.
Spruiell seems to be arguing that Armando’s failure to disclose potential conflicts between his day job and his online positions is misleading and therefore newsworthy.
Joshua Treviño, a co-founder of the Online Integrity project who was once himself an established pseudononymous blogger and who co-blogs with Armando at Swords Crossed, is quite ambivalent about the whole thing.
The end served by the accession to this fiction is the facilitation of anonymous and pseudonymous actors in the given space — in this case, the blogosphere. The communal benefits of this facilitation are obvious: actors who might be otherwise unable to participate can lend their voices; and for the actors themselves, there is some mitigation of personal consequence. The communal negatives are equally obvious: accountability and social inhibition often diminish in proportion with consequence. Respect for anonymity and pseudonymity is therefore mostly a calculation of whether the pros outweigh the cons.
Davinci, blogging at the site where TreviÃ±o established his Tacitus identity, writes, “That people have seen fit to look for his real persona and try and use his clients against him is sad. It will only make the divide in our country that much worse if tit for tat reprisals start to happen. The dialog even in disagreement is good for our country.”
John Cole is angry that Armando was outed but thinks he was ridiculously careless for someone trying to protect his privacy. Still, “What was done to him was wrong, considering his expressed desire for privacy and obvious attempts to maintain his anonymity . . . . Armando is the victim here, and I am really angry at NRO and the folks behind this.”
All refuse to link to Spruiell’s posts, presumably following the Statement‘s “enforcement” provision: “Violations of these principles should be met with a lack of positive publicity and traffic.” While often logical, that strikes me as silly in this case because one can’t talk about it rationally without referring to Spruiell and NRO by name and, incidentally, linking to Spruiell’s post explaining his actions which, in turn, links to the initial post.
Leon Wolf, another of the Swords Crossed bloggers, saved me the effort of emailing Spruiell by doing it first and publishing the results. They’re rather illuminating. Most notably, if one does a Google search on “Armando Daily Kos” (omitting the quotation marks) the 4th result gives you his identity without even having to click through. It’s an entry in the wildly popular Wikipedia. That Armando maintained any level of anononymity is incredible.
Still, Wolf is right to point out the moral dilemmas involved here:
All of us could, of course, hide behind pseudonyms, but there is some value to be lent to a person who is willing to attach his name to his pontifications – that’s not reason to associate that person’s clients with his polemicism unless he’s failed to disclose a conflict of interest, in my book. The only reason I can imagine for Spruiell to have done this was to discredit Armando among liberals by associating him with Wal-Mart, which is a shameless tactic I will not condone. Further, out of respect for basic decency, the entire wikipedia kerfluffle which Spruiell takes careful note of should have spoken loud and clear that, while Armando’s identity might be available to anyone who does a half-diligent search, he doesn’t want his professional life (and especially not his clients) drug into the limelight to be whacked with a stick unnecessarily. Again, in the absence of a clear conflict of interest which Armando failed to disclose (and I’ve seen no evidence of this), mentioning the firm and the clients was nothing more than a political cheap shot.
That strikes me as the right set of questions to be asking. What was the transgression committed by Armando which outweighed the “basic decency” of protecting Armando’s privacy? According to Spruiell’s tipster:
During his time filling in for Kos as the “front page diarist” he wrote a number of pro-corporate articles, of course without disclosing that he is a corporate attorney promoting these same issues for his clients. For example, in this post he takes the pro-corporate position that modern anti-trust law is based on activist judges’ rulings and not as the law as written. He fails to mention that he recently represented Wal-Mart in an anti-trust capacity in Puerto Rico.
Now, clearly, the point here is not to smear Armando as “a liberal working for Wal-Mart” in order to harm his standing with the Left but rather that he violated a basic principle of journalistic disclosure. For example, I routinely disclose–on a per post basis–potential conflicts with even my wife’s employer if I’m aware of them. Still, one could scarcely maintain an anonymous identify and reveal one’s clients. (I’m not sure whether publically noting that one’s firm represents a client is even advisable from a legal ethics standpoint.) And the level of harm to the reader here is mighty small compared to the potential damage done to Armando’s career.
Ultimately, I believe Spruiell’s actions here were consistent with the ethical practices of the mainstream press but not those of the online community. Reporters violate people’s privacy all the time and have no compunction about ruining the lives of people, especially powerful and/or famous people, for relatively minor transgressions. On the Internet, where no one has to know you’re a dog, there is a rather high expectation of privacy.
As both Wolf and TreviÃ±o note, that has trade-offs. It allows very gifted, knowledgable people who would otherwise be unable to do so for personal and professional reasons to be public intellectuals. At the same time, it lowers personal accountability. Certainly, I’m a different blogger as “James Joyner” than I would be under a clever pseudonym such as “James.”
As an aside, one irony over this brouhaha is that the story on Armando is given second billing in a post on the Yearly Kos convention entitled “Kos Mania!” It’s something that I would almost surely have glossed over if I were visiting Spruiell’s sideblog. As usual, the outrage over an event magnifies the attention immeasurably.
UPDATE: Be sure to read the comments below; some excellent discussion is going on.
UPDATE (June 22): I’ve written quite a bit more in a follow-up post: “NRO Outs Kos’ Armando II“