New Republic Editor Franklin Foer axed Senior Editor Lee Siegel's culture blog and suspended him from writing for the magazine last week. Foer explains why in an oddly worded note on the magazine's site: Comments posted to New Republic Online discussion areas by user "sprezzatura" defending Siegel personally and his work were "produced with Siegel's participation." This misled readers, Foer writes, hence the discipline.
In the New York Timesstory about the incident, Siegel acknowledges responsibility, stating, "I'm sorry about my prank, which was certainly not designed to harm a magazine that has been my happy intellectual home for many years."
How grievous was Siegel's offense? And what did sprezzatura write that so misled the magazine's readers?
(First, a little too much disclosure: Siegel is a friendly acquaintance whose writings I admire. I worked with Foer 10 years ago when he was a Slate editorial assistant and we remain friendly. And I've been abusing New Republic Editor in Chief Martin Peretz in print and online for 15 years, as these January and August columns attest.)
The New Republic isn't making it easy for people to read sprezzatura's opinions and judge the affair for themselves. Clicking the "Lee Siegel on Culture" hyperlink on the TNR.com home page sends you to a dead-end page containing Foer's apology to his readers—with no option to read Siegel's archived blogs and the "misleading" comments he played a role in posting. Siegel's blog archive page remains active, but clicking an entry takes you back to Foer's note. Siegel's TNR.com "author" page lists working links for his print articles and Web-only * entries from pre-March 2006.
If you search "sprezzatura" on TNR.com, you'll find the innocuous comment he made about a March Ruth Franklin piece and 16 postings in which sprezzatura comments on a February Lee Siegel blog piece about Jon Stewart and reader responses to it. The first posting, titled "Siegel Is My Hero," reads:
How angry people get when a powerful critic says he doesn't like their favorite show! Like little babies. Such fragile egos. Siegel accuses Stewart of a "pandering puerility" and he gets an onslaught of puerile responses from the insecure herd of independent minds. I'm well within Stewart's target group, and I think he's about as funny as a wet towel in a locker room. Siegel is brave, brilliant, and wittier than Stewart will ever be. Take that, you bunch of immature, abusive sheep.
The only other sprezzatura comments still hosted by TNR.com require a Google search to uncover. On Aug. 27, sprezzatura posted at least eight times in "his" running battle with Siegel's critics. Among other things, sprezzatura writes:
Every young write [sic] in NYC has it in for poor Siegel it seems. They all write like middle-aged hacks. He has the fire and guts of a young man (I assume he's middle-aged himself, or somewhere near there.) Who am I? Someone who knows who you are. …
You're a fraud, and a liar. And a wincingly pretentious writer. You couldn't tie Siegel's shoelaces.
I'm a huge fan of Siegel, been reading him since he started writing for TNR almost ten years ago. (Full disclosure: I'm an editor at a magazine in NYC and he's written for me too.) … And I ask myself: why is it the young guys who go after Siegel? Must be because he writes the way young guys should be writing: angry, independent, not afraid of offending powerful people.
After a poster accuses sprezzatura of being Siegel, sprezzatura writes:
I'm not Lee Siegel, you imbecile. If you knew who I was you and your n + 1 buddies would crap in your pants. Anyway, I really do have two kids. Good luck managing your frustrated ambition.
(Note: I've stored sprezzatura's Aug. 27 comments to a file and will repost them here as a sidebar if the New Republic is so unwise as to delete them.)
I can't defend Siegel for knocking his critics and toasting himself with a nom de web. Nor, based on what I read, can I criticize Foer for killing the blog and suspending Siegel from the pages of the magazine as punishment. If Foer believes Siegel breached a trust and wants to communicate that to Siegel and readers, he's within his rights. I do, however, think it's silly for the New Republic to unpublish Siegel's recent Web articles and the offending blog comments. Instead, the New Republic should have kept them live on the site, appending them with an editor's note detailing Siegel's alleged indiscretion.
In any event, I predict that Siegel will return to the magazine before Thanksgiving after having done his penance. But as long as the brouhaha boils, let's harness its energy to think through the issues raised by his naughtiness, as well as the naughtiness of Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik. In the spring, Hiltzik earned a suspension after getting caught posting pseudonymous comments on his own blog and the blogs of others.
Siegel's role in pseudonymously posting flattering material about himself and criticism of others appears shocking. But practically every Web site with a comments area implicitly sanctions the practice of sniping at foes from a camouflaged position. Few sites, Slate included, make any effort to make users post under their real names. Anonymity appears to be one of the inalienable—if not operational—rights of Internet "citizenship." It's my conjecture that posters adopt pseudonymous names precisely so they can express stuff they don't have to accept responsibility for. It's the Web.
So, if Siegel is a cretin for concealing his role in the authorship of Web comments, then so are millions of other posters. If Siegel is a cretin for arranging pseudonymous posts that benefit him, then so are hundreds of thousands of other posters. One could argue that if Siegel's critics can blast him from the dark, he should be allowed to do the same to them.
Our culture has yet to decide whether Web comments are closer to "conversation" than "publication." When we talk over the phone, face-to-face, in a quick e-mail, or even on a radio talk show, we all take advantage of the wiggle room our culture gives us to embellish or to borrow ideas without attribution. In the extreme example of the talk show, we're even permitted to maintain our anonymity as we hold forth before an audience of thousands or millions.
That slack generally vanishes when we submit our comments for publication. It's understood that we can be charged with plagiarism unless our written comments are original or properly cited. Editors traditionally extend anonymity to those who may get fired or firebombed for what they write. Accountability demands that everyone else put their names to what they write.
I regard Web comments as something closer to publication than conversation, so I use my real name or something that identifies me—ShaferAtSlate, to use one recent example—when posting. But I understand the millions who think posting is more like conversation.
Siegel, a veteran of publication culture, can't claim the potentially fired or firebombed right to a pseudonym. But I can think of plenty of examples in which publishers have given writers pseudonyms solely because it was of convenience to them: The writer under contract to a publication who secretly freelances elsewhere under a pen name; the literary editor who doesn't want people thinking he's slumming by writing about pop music; the political reporter who wants to disguise authorship of his novel because he fears losing his important sources. Had Foer authorized Siegel to contribute to the comment thread pseudonymously—that is deliberately misled readers—it would have been publication as usual.
Foer's apology to his readers doesn't cite any prior New Republic policy prohibiting the use of pseudonyms on blogs. I'm as certain that no such policy existed at the magazine last week as I am that one exists this week. (To be fair to the New Republic, Slate currently has no explicit policy on the matter.) In an item posted today, Foer asks New Republic readers if the magazine should allow anonymous comments, saying he sees the value of both making posters accountable and giving them the protection of anonymity.
If Foer thinks there's worth in anonymity, then how did Siegel's sprezzatura mask mislead New Republic readers any more than the masks worn by "ye swab," "MrCookie1," "dangerpirate," or any of the other posters to Siegel's thread?
Unless there's more to the story, Siegel isn't getting spanked for misleading the magazine's readers or the New Republic brass but for having publicly embarrassed the magazine with his egomaniacal posts. Had the New Republic uncovered his ruse without the public finding out, do you think we'd be witnessing this orgy of punishment and soul-searching?
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Correction, Sept. 6: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Siegel's "author" page listed his pre-March 2006 blog entries. Siegel didn't start writing a blog until April 2006. The entries under discussion were for for Siegel's Web-only television essays.(Return to the corrected sentence.)