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April 28, 2006
Hiltzik Loses Column Over Sock Puppetry

Last week, Patterico's Pontifications discovered that Los Angeles Times columnist and blogger Michael Hiltzik had created multiple personas for comments on Patterico's blog as well as Hiltzik's own. When Patterico posted the evidence of the phony personas, Hiltzik's newspaper suspended his blog while it investigated the behavior of its Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. Now the Times has announced that Hiltzik will lose his column for his violation of their ethics policy, although he will remain as a reporter with the paper:

The Times is discontinuing Michael Hiltzik’s Golden State column, which ran in the Business section, because the columnist violated the newspaper’s ethics guidelines. This follows the suspension last week of his blog on, which also has been discontinued. Hiltzik has acknowledged using pseudonyms to post a single comment on his blog on and multiple comments elsewhere on the Web that dealt with his column and other issues involving the newspaper.

Hiltzik did not commit any ethical violations in his newspaper column, and an internal inquiry found no inaccurate reporting in his postings in his blog or on the Web. But employing pseudonyms constitutes deception and violates a central tenet of The Times’ ethics guidelines: Staff members must not misrepresent themselves and must not conceal their affiliation with The Times. This rule applies equally to the newspaper and the Web world.

Over the past few days, some analysts have used this episode to portray the Web as a new frontier for newspapers, saying that it raises fresh and compelling ethical questions. Times editors don’t see it that way. The Web makes it easier to conceal one’s identity, and the tone of exchanges is often harsh. But the Web doesn’t change the rules for Times journalists.

After serving a suspension, Hiltzik will be reassigned.

I never had a high opinion of Hiltzik before the sock puppetry, and have an even lower opinion of him now. However, one has to wonder whether the Times went overboard with its reaction. As the editors state, Hiltzik didn't break any rules in his column or in his reporting for the newspaper, at least according to the editors. The violations occurred on the Golden State blog and at Patterico's Pontifications.

It seems to me that killing the blog and suspending Hiltzik would have been sufficient for the violations he committed. Don't get me wrong; I don't think Hiltzik wrote well enough or posed good enough arguments to warrant his own column anyway, as his silly and ignorant rantings over Hugh Hewitt's Sitemeter stats proved well enough. If the Times thought so, then they should have just deep-sixed the column for that reason and been honest about it. If they liked Hiltzik's work on the column, then they should have kept the punishment to the same venue in which the violations occurred.

The message the Times wants to send with this action doesn't appear very clear to me. Why go through all the hassle to kill his blog and his column, suspend him, and then have his work still appear in their newspaper? Cancelling his blog acknowledges that he has shot his credibility in this arena, and the suspension serves as a financial penalty for embarrassing his newspaper. But canceling his column demonstrates a lack of faith in Hiltzik's credibility as a columnist -- which must then also apply to his work as a reporter. The Times has kneecapped Hiltzik for any other assignment at the Times.

The Times had the right principles in mind when they addressed this situation; they held Hiltzik accountable for his sad and pathetic attempts to invent people who would agree with him. Either they went overboard in their attack on his print work, or they should have fired him outright, and to do the latter would have been completely dishonest. The true punishment for Hiltzik's foolishness is the knowledge that he made himself into a joke. The Times couldn't leave it at that and turned him into a tragedy instead.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 28, 2006 10:52 PM

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