News Media's Great Pseudonym Debate

By News on the Record Archives
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In April of last year, The Australian published an editorial critiquing the begrudgingly accepted practice at certain outlets allowing authors to publish under pseudonyms. This question of pseudonym allowance usually comes up when an author wishes to contribute a guest opinion piece on a subject of a particularly controversial nature, especially if the expression of said opinion could jeopardize his employment. But as the editorial titled "Stand against the thought police" put it, "The idea of allowing academic authors to publish anonymous articles so they can speak freely is a slippery slope towards institutionalizing conformity. Great thinkers throughout history have suffered public and professional ridicule and torment, sometimes as a prelude to acknowledged wisdom."

However, true to the traditional ideal of a newspaper's opinion section featuring a perspective opposite to that of the editorial, the day after that editorial ran, The Australianpublished a column by Quillette editor Claire Lehmann, who took the opposite position. Arguing that pseudonyms ought not be considered taboo in today's news media, Lehmann wrote in her column that "We have published writers under pseudonyms at the online magazine I founded, Quillette, but only after verifying the author's real identity. We do this because some of our writers work in professional industries that are highly conformist, such as academe, where having unorthodox opinions can risk one's career." Referencing the phenomenon of doxxing which I have separately criticized in a previous MediaVillage column, Lehmann further warned that "Pre-modern forms of behavioral control are back in fashion, with the threat of snitching and mobbing or stalking anybody who dares express an independent thought."

Now with the two sides of the debate laid out, I will confess that historically I unabashedly sympathized with the position expressed in The Australian's editorial. If someone isn't willing to put his name to his argument, that severely undermines both his credibility and the relative importance he must place on expressing the viewpoint in the piece, I reasoned. Furthermore, there is a loss of accountability when one hides behind a pen name, the sort of anonymity some critics of social media insist is behind the toxicity they claim permeates websites such as Twitter. Accordingly, as editor-in-chief of Merion West, I forbade pseudonymous submissions for a number of years.

But then my stance began to soften. This was partially for some of the same reasons described by Lehmann such as an increasingly ideologically intolerant media (and social) landscape, a trend I decried in this column in October of 2020. But I also began to think back to the first journalism class I ever took, which was taught by Carlos Dada, a co-founder of the El Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro. Given the realities on the ground in El Salvador, El Faro, unfortunately, finds itself having to devote much of its coverage to the country's drug trade and the countless grisly acts of violence that are part and parcel of that business. I recalled how so many of his sources risked their lives in even speaking with journalists such as Dada -- let alone authoring a piece themselves. So when it comes to a subject such as this one -- and many others -- if a person intimately involved wished to publish an op-ed or guest essay on the drug trade, to forbid a pseudonymous submission would mean that readers would have to forgo hearing such a perspective altogether.

Various thinkers, entertainers, and commentators are anchored to various disciplines. It has been said that the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was primarily a psychologist. And, more prosaically, Patrice O'Neal today is perhaps better known for dispensing dating advice and his regular appearances on talk radio, but he was still -- at bottom, as the philosophers say -- a comedian. For me, despite being a journalist, my worldview is informed by a historical approach, where precedent trumps all. One, thus, thinks of the countless works historically speaking produced by pseudonymous authors, such as George Orwell's sociological 1937 work The Road to Wigan Pier. (To be clear, there is a crucial distinction between pen names in fiction as opposed to non-fictional accounts and journalism.) Perhaps the most famous example is that of The Federalist Papers, which though authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, were published under the collective pseudonym "Publius."

So, at Merion West, we finally allowed a pseudonymous author to publish in 2021. The author, who goes by the name Charles Pincourt, is an engineering professor at a Canadian university and has written a few articles, most recently this past week, on how various political priorities have increasingly come at the cost of teaching and research in engineering. Asked why he chooses not to put his own name to his work, he describes similar variables at play to those enumerated by Lehmann. But as Naval Ravikant likes to say, "If anyone gives you multiple reasons for why they don't want to do something, it's usually the last one." And to this point, Pincourt closed his explanation by mentioning that he has a wife and children to support, and to lose his job would be to inflict enormous financial hardship on his family. It was reminiscent of what one veteran commentator once told me when I was once on my high horse about the need to take stances no matter the cost: It's fine and good when you only have to worry about your own bills ("buying pizza and beer," as he put it), but it's another story when one has a few children in tow.

As I wrote as a very young man at The News & Observer, "After all, the so-called controversial issues tend to be controversial for the reason that both sides have at least a degree of legitimacy to their arguments." This issue is no different, with strong arguments to be made on either side. But, as much as I root for the emergence of a day when ideas can be expressed freely without fear of retaliation, particularly in terms of employment, we do not live in that world. As such, I now see things more as Lehmann did in the spring of 2021. Accordingly, I encourage news outlets, yes, to acknowledge the potential pitfalls of pseudonymous articles but, at times, to make exceptions nevertheless.

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