Shadows and blog: The New Republic's Lee Siegel is guilty, but of what?

Media criticism.
Sept. 5 2006 9:56 PM

Shadows and Blog

The New Republic's Lee Siegel is guilty, but of what?

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."

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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. …

And: