Can outing an anonymous blogger be justified?

Yes, is the answer, but that's getting ahead of ourselves.

The question springs from a tempest swirling around the St. Augustine (Fla.) Record and its efforts - including the use of its own on-property surveillance camera - to remove the veil of anonymity from a blogger who had been highly critical of a local politician.

The Record's editor, Peter Ellis, tells me that his paper was merely calling to account "a political group hiding behind the name of a fictitious person, which is what happened."

Ellis stands by that decision, as he should, although he does regret using the video, which didn't actually lead to identifying the man anyway. But again, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Some in the blogosphere have reacted so vehemently in opposition to the newspaper's attempted outing that you would think the Record had formed a posse and shot the lonely pamphleteer of yore.

"A Florida newspaper appears to have hit an all-time low in the relationship between bloggers and the media," writes Rogers Cadenhead, who maintains a blog called Workbench and has authored two books about Java. ... "I don't know (the blogger), but he has the right to speak his mind on the Web without intimidation by politicians and the press, whether or not he's writing under his real name. I've been reading the Record for a decade. I can't recall a single time where it conducted an effort to catch a rapist, robber or murderer anywhere near the scope of this manhunt for a blogger."

Cadenhead is a former newspaperman ... who appears to have forgotten a lot about the journalism business. (By the way, I worked for 20 years as a local newspaper editor before coming to Network World.)

OK, time for a bit of background: County Commissioner Ben Rich is apparently a man of many words, some of them just plain whacked, as when he suggested after the horrific Columbine disaster that the actions of the authorities on scene made him "want to go down there and shoot the cop and go in." (Maybe Tip O'Neill was wrong about all politics being local.)

Anyway, it should come as no surprise that a character like Rich would draw political opposition, which he has. One particularly notable aspect of that opposition was a blog (since defunct) written by a pseudonyminous fellow adopting the name "Lee Padgett." Padgett not only lambasted Rich online but strode into the Record's building to purchase an advertisement critical of the commissioner, which is where his "grainy image" was captured by that now infamous video camera.

The Record, believing Padgett to be part of an organized political group out to unseat Rich, not merely a lonely pamphleteer voicing his displeasure with a public official, decided that making public Padgett's identity was the right to do.

They were correct. While there may be a long-held and cherished right to publish anonymously in this country, it isn't any more absolute than other First Amendment rights and should never be confused with a right to remain anonymous. After all, there was never anything stopping the lonely pamphleteer's neighbors from saying, "Hey, that looks a lot like farmer Ben's handwriting."

Truth be told, the Record didn't need a high-minded rational for outing Padgett. The mere fact that the man had kicked up public attention - made himself a person of public interest - makes him fair game for being identified (if not the video treatment). Think Joe Klein and "Primary Colors." Or, an example from the tech world: Last time I checked, the identity of Microsoft's internal provocateur, Mini-Microsoft, was still a secret to the public at large. If I knew, you'd know ... because ... it's ... something ... people ... want ... to ... know.

How the paper went about unmasking Padgett explains much but not all of the uproar. The Record posted the video of Padgett's advertising department visit to its Web site with a plea for the public to send in tips as to the man's identity. This touched off a firestorm in the blogging world, fanned by a brief mention on the influential Instapundit.

In retrospect, editor Ellis says he now regrets the decision to post the video, but not necessarily for the reasons the critical bloggers might expect.

Here's how Ellis addressed the matter in our e-mail exchange:

If I had to do it again, I would have gone to traditional reporting methods right away, bypassing the controversy (which locally has been almost nil, but I've heard from about 10-15 people like you) and kept the high wall between news and the other departments in this building.

What he means by the "high wall" is the traditional separation between the news and advertising departments within a publication.

While I'm not privy to the details, it's easy for me to imagine that the use of that video did not sit well within the Record's advertising department.

Some have said that this was an attack on blogs and bloggers. Not so. I have no problem with them; indeed, we have our own. What I do have a problem with is a political group hiding behind the name of a fictitious person, which is what happened.

Some background: an organized group launched a series of attacks against some elected officials. We wanted to find out what the group is (we now know). For the record, we are not friends - nor are we foes - of these candidates. We are, however, advocates for the public and think they want to know what organized groups are working behind the scenes to manipulate public opinion.

Would I do (the video posting) again? No. First, it raises questions about lines we draw, and, in hindsight, I shouldn't have done it. And second, we got the information by using more standard reporting techniques.

Whether the paper has actually identified Padgett publicly or not I do not know. The paper's online search engine seems a bit balky this morning. But if they haven't you can bet they will.

And that's just rock-solid, by-the-book, public-interest journalism.

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