Monday, October 11, 2010

Anonymity in the News Media

Greetings fellow seniors!

I'm not totally sure what I should be including with this post, but this blog has to start somewhere, so here goes nothing.

Below you'll find some of the more interesting links I came across in my research into media anonymity. I encourage you to click on them, read them, ponder them, and perhaps even post about them. I'll be checking the comments every day or so, and I'll do my best to moderate things in a timely and intelligent manner.


John Peter Zenger went on trial in 1735 for publishing anonymous attacks against the governor of New York. Andrew Hamilton successfully defended Zenger, and as a result, established a framework for free (and anonymous) press in America.

An analysis of the Zenger trial by Douglas O. Linder, professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City: Zenger's Anonymous Publishing Gives Birth to Free Press


Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters for the Washington Post, changed how anonymous sources are used and perceived with their now-infamous "Deepthroat" interviews. The anonymous "Deepthroat" leak and accompanying story reinforced the idea of truth as a defense against libel. It also showcased the power of anonymous sources.

A four-part story from the Washington Post about the Watergate scandal. Parts one and four are of particular interest: "Deepthroat" Identified as Former FBI Official Mark Felt


In 1980 Janet Cooke fabricated a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. Jimmy did not exist, many of the named sources she cited did not exist, and, obviously, all of the anonymous sources she cited did not exist. The story "earned" her the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. However, after the story was revealed to be fraudulent, she gave up the prize as well as her job at the Post. Janet's story illuminates how anonymous sources can easily be abused--and also how they can create a snowball effect of fabrication.

The story itself: Jimmy's World

Bill Green, the Washington Post's ombudsman (an internal critic and reviewer), researched why and how the fabrication was published: How She Got Away With It

A recent Washington Post blog article about the anniversary of the story, and its relevance today: Janet Cooke and Jimmy's World


The Obama administration may be taking steps to change the internet's "dog problem"--anonymity.

An interesting article from the New York Times: Who Are You Really?


Meanwhile, China may be taking steps to rid the web of all anonymity.

An article from the BBC about China's steps to make people use their real names: China Targets Online Commenter Anonymity


Lastly, I'll leave you with links to two of my favorite blogs.

One is called "Hipster Runoff"--it's a satire site about all things 'hip,' 'relevant,' and 'alternative.' It's certainly not for everyone, it's certainly NSFW, and it's certainly sloppy journalism (although I definitely read things here that I would not ever see anywhere else). However, it's an anonymous blog, and its style--it's "brand"--is what keeps people coming back. The author is a mysterious person known only as "Carles." The site is an excellent example of how a blog can use anonymity to its marketing advantage.

The other site is a "full-disclosure" blog by New York author Tao Lin. Lin's blog is unique in that he divulges just about every piece of personal information you could ever possibly want to know about him. He does not hide behind the internet at all. His site is an excellent example of how a blogger can use all the details of their identity to their marketing (and "branding") advantage.

Hipster Runoff is a music and lifestyle blog owned, maintained, and operated by the mysterious 'Carles.' It receives thousands of hits a day, sometimes has weird poetry, and sometimes is NSFW: Hipster Runoff

Tao Lin is a published author who lives in New York City and regularly Tweets and blogs about the relatively mundane minutia of his life. Dig around his blog and you'll definitely find "TMI" about him:


Alright, that's it for me. I look forward to reading your comments and watching everyone else's presentations!


  1. Help me out here, Jon. What does NSFW mean?

  2. I wouldn't think that telling the whole world you do drugs would be a marketing "advantage." Although, I guess it depends who you're marketing yourself to:

  3. Colette-

    I think Lin's blog is an excellent example of self-promotion--reckless, adventurous, and creative self-promotion.

    Likewise, I think you're right: telling the whole world you're on drugs isn't necessarily a good thing. However, it is a clever way to draw attention to yourself-- to have your blog "go viral."

    Lin is notorious for self-promotional gimmicks:

    I found out about him after he put his myspace account up for sale on ebay:

    He sold "shares" of his last book:

    Also, I think it's worth noting that Lin graduated from NYU with a degree in journalism. He's also banned from NYU's bookstore for shoplifting--despite the fact that they sell his books there.

  4. Jon,

    I'm loving those two blogs. Tao Lin pisses me off already and I've barely read more than a few pages... but he seems more like a dickhead postmodern anarchist who's learned to self-promote his mopey deadpan shtick on the internet than any kind of traditionally defined "journalist." I'm sure there's still a place in society from him... the funniest part is that someon will actually publish him:

    "Dear Alice,
    Thank you for applying to be an intern. I accept you. I am one of the five writers. My name is Tao Lin. My books, EEEEE EEE EEEE and BED, are forthcoming from Melville House Publishing. I have flyers for those books with Miranda July blurb on them. I would like for you to superglue flyers for my books onto Starbucks windows and also inside Starbucks, on their sofas and walls. It would be good if you could cover an entire glass window with my 4x6 glossy, two-sided flyers. You can do this at 3 a.m. If you get caught and get in trouble that is okay. That is part of this internship. Let me know if you are interested and I'll mail you about 200 flyers. You can start with the Astor place Starbucks. I'll have more tasks for you after this.
    Tao Lin"

    Instant classic.

  5. I think the idea of having an online identification card would be a good way to organize online posting, it should be that way so you are responsible for what you say no matter where it is, whether in the streets or online. If you don't want to share it, then don't! Not sure if government should make it mandatory to have one but if you are wanting to post to blogs or other news sites then why not. Being anonymous is so 1980's!

  6. Matt,

    I think the identification card is a good idea in theory, but in practice? We'll just have to wait and see....

    Personally, I like sites that have their comments integrated with Facebook. It's convenient--only one login to remember, but it also eliminates some of the problems with anonymity.

    Facebook is unique because being anonymous on it is discouraged to a certain degree. At least, it's hard to take advantage of a lot of what Facebook offers while still remaining anonymous.

    So logging into your Facebook account in order to comment can add a certain amount of accountability to postings.