Columnist's Blog: He Hasn't Been Himself Lately
Monday, April 24, 2006
Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times hasn't exactly been pulling his punches.
He has ripped "the right-wing noise machine Hugh Hewitt," calling the radio host a "close-minded nincompoop" who parades his "ignorance" and shows "his sedulous devotion, like a sucking remora fish, to the imploding George W. Bush."
He has assailed "the reactionary Kate O'Beirne" for suffering a "loss of bladder control" in her televised comments.
He has slammed Los Angeles writer Cathy Seipp as "one of those people whose desire to Tell it Like it Is tends to be hampered by lack of information."
Hiltzik has done all this not in his column but on his company-approved blog, a sideline that has landed him in trouble and raised questions about how far news organizations should go in allowing employees to swing away in the freewheeling, name-calling, grudge-settling blogosphere.
The Times suspended Hiltzik's blog on the paper's Web site last week after he admitted using one or more pseudonyms, in violation of the company's policy, to post derogatory comments on his and other people's blogs. The anonymous blasts by "Mikekoshi" were usually aimed at the same people he peppers on his Golden State blog, which is far more personal and inflammatory than his newspaper column on financial issues.
Hiltzik also got into trouble in 1993, when the Times recalled him from the paper's Moscow bureau after he was caught hacking into colleagues' e-mail. He was exposed through an internal sting operation when he asked about phony messages that had been sent to other staffers in the bureau.
"His answer was that he was nosy and curious," says Carey Goldberg, a former colleague in the Moscow bureau who now works for the Boston Globe. "We were extremely upset. It was an incredible invasion of privacy. There were a lot of personal e-mails in there."
Seipp says Hiltzik has apparently been taking potshots at her because she criticized him at the time of the 13-year-old incident. While Hiltzik is "a very smart reporter and writer," Seipp says, his behavior "suggests that this guy has a history of snooping around and is dishonest and doing things he shouldn't be doing. It's also self-destructive."
It's unclear why Hiltzik would take such a risk, but not everyone is critical. Claude Brodesser, who writes a Los Angeles column for the Web site Media Bistro, writes that anonymous posting is part of the Internet culture and that even reporters should enjoy that freedom. "Hiltzik might have cloaked his identity -- something seemingly at variance with the Times' policies -- but what he did was hardly lying or, for that matter, extortion," Brodesser says.
What exactly are the rules for print or television journalists blogging on company sites? Reporters are usually told not to take political stands or say anything they wouldn't say in print or on the air. But blogs by their nature are more personal, attitude-filled, sharp-edged or sarcastic -- often dashed off within minutes -- and that is the essence of their appeal. It can also be dangerous territory.
Neither Hiltzik nor Times editors would comment while his blog practices are under investigation. But the Times is hardly the only news outlet grappling with the question of standards.