A prominent pseudonymous blogger has shut down his site after a New York Times reporter refused to conceal his identity in a forthcoming piece, putting his livelihood and life in danger.
Psychiatrist Scott Alexander (his first and middle, but not last, name) has worked for years to cultivate a small but thriving intellectual community through his blog Slate Star Codex. That came to a halt Monday evening, however, when Alexander deleted the blog, replacing it with a post entitled "NYT Is Threatening My Safety By Revealing My Real Name, So I Am Deleting The Blog."
The deletion was the culmination of a week of buzz that a Times reporter, Cade Metz, was reporting a story on Alexander's site and the community it spawned, prompting widespread fears that Alexander would be the next figure "canceled" by a media exposé, possibly as retribution for his criticisms of modern progressivism.
Neither Metz nor his editor Pui-Wing Tam responded to a request for comment. Times vice president for communications Danielle Rhoades Ha told the Washington Free Beacon, "we do not comment on what we may or may not publish in the future. But when we report on newsworthy or influential figures, our goal is always to give readers all the accurate and relevant information we can."
Alexander and others interviewed by Metz told the Free Beacon that they do not believe Metz wanted to write a "hit piece." But Metz did insist that Times guidelines compelled him to disclose Alexander's real name, derailing an interview with the blogger.
There is little evidence that such a policy exists at the Times, which has granted anonymity or pseudonymity to an Apple news executive, a left-wing podcaster, and even other subjects of Metz's story. This confusion, Alexander's fear of national news attention, and the resultant backlash on social media—and even among the Times‘s own alumni—raise uncomfortable questions about the power that the media have to ruin lives—and the cavalierness with which that power has recently been exercised.
Before Monday night's takedown, Slate Star Codex was home to Alexander's blog on psychiatry, philosophy, rationalism, and fiction. The site, Alexander told the Free Beacon, regularly attracted roughly 20,000 daily visits, with posts receiving between 100 and 1,000 comments.
That represents a small but thriving community driven by Alexander's writings, the loss of which SSC-devotee and University of Texas computer scientist Scott Aaronson described as "on the scale of, let's say, John Stuart Mill or Mark Twain burning their manuscripts."
"I've considered SSC to be the best blog on the entire Internet since soon after discovering it five years ago," said Aaronson, who found the blog after Alexander defended him in a blog post. "I stayed because of Scott’s insights about everything else."
SSC has also developed a reputation for free and open discussion, which has sometimes caused Alexander to butt heads with others, particularly the Internet's large and vocal progressive feminist contingent. He strongly criticized a perceived tendency in modern feminism to demonize "nerd entitlement" in one particularly controversial 2015 post, and has also argued that imbalanced gender outcomes are not driven exclusively by prejudice.
Alexander's public views are broadly liberal with some libertarian influence, but his controversial arguments have attracted the ill will of what Aaronson called "social media mobs who despised Scott and wanted to end his blog because of political disagreements"—part of what made Alexander wary of the article.
But when Metz reached out, Alexander says, he wanted to discuss not these controversies, but the community SSC had built, in a largely positive way. Issues, however, emerged almost immediately.
"He never got around to asking me questions because I started with asking if the article would include my real name and we didn't get past our argument on that subject," Alexander told the Free Beacon by email. "I explained almost word for word the same things I explained on my recent post. He said he would talk to his editor, then came back saying that his editor said the article couldn't be published without my real name. He said he was really sorry about this and I believe him."
This conclusion is particularly surprising given the apparent casualness with which the Times permits pseudonymity or anonymity in other cases. The Times did not respond to multiple requests for comment as to why Alexander's situation merited different treatment.
In a February profile of left-wing podcast "Chapo Trap House," for example, the paper explicitly referred to podcaster Virgil Texas by that pseudonym. In 2017, the paper quoted Tom Tango, a well-known but totally pseudonymous baseball expert.
A 2018 news story about Apple News quotes an Apple executive and former Times editor who was granted anonymity "for privacy reasons." In 2015, the Times even extended anonymity to a source "because she has always wanted to be an anonymous source."
Another pseudonymous SSC poster, "bean," claimed earlier in the week to have been approached by Metz, and wrote Tuesday on his blog that Metz readily agreed to grant him the pseudonymity he denied Alexander.
None of this appears to contradict Times guidance. The paper explicitly cites those worried about their safety as individuals who can be afforded anonymity; its public rules on anonymous sourcing note that they consider that "sources often fear for their jobs or business relationships—sometimes even for their safety."
Such fears are very real to Alexander, who wrote that the connection of his online persona to his personal life would pose a risk to his ability to care for his patients, in turn potentially causing him the loss of his job. Alexander also feared that his public "doxxing" could lead to real harm—he claimed that he has received death threats, while readers have been the subject of dangerous false SWAT calls.
These fears were widely shared. David Friedman—economist, the son of Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, and a frequent SSC poster—told the Free Beacon that he spoke to Metz, during which conversation Alexander's anonymity did not come up.
"Last night, after reading Scott's announcement, I sent Cade Metz an email pointing out that many in the online world viewed doxxing somebody as only a little short of heaving a brick through his window, that being one possible consequence, and equally irresponsible," Friedman said.
Friedman, Alexander, and others had been worried since at least the preceding week, when Metz began making interview requests. Then, the fear was that Alexander would be the latest media "cancellation," hot on the heels of a Washington Post exposé on a woman who wore blackface to a Post cartoonist's Halloween party.
Alexander and allies had anticipated such an eventuality—Friedman alluded to discussions on the web and a Zoom meeting—but did not expect that his pseudonymity would be the sticking point.
"I think this was just a really unfortunate thing to have happened where a basically decent person who wanted to write a basically nice story about us ran up against policies forcing him to use my real name and so we have to go through all of this," Alexander said. "This was such a weird thing to have happened that I'm ashamed to say I didn't really prepare, which I guess you can tell from the outcome."
The news of SSC's demise has prompted outrage among fans, with many Twitter supporters announcing they will cancel their Times subscriptions. Although Alexander puts the situation down to bureaucratic failure, others doubt this story—as one commenter put it, "It's very clear that the NYT itself does this kind of thing for no other reason than the attention it draws."
That concern extends also to former Times employees, according to posts from a Times alumni Facebook group shared with the Free Beacon. "My unresearched answer is that some Times writers make up unbreakable rules without consulting their editors," one editor wrote, while a Times layout designer opined that "if the Times can shelter whistle blowers and public officials who wish to retain anonymity, they must respect this doctor's right to same."
"I thought policy was that people are called whatever they want to be called?" a photographer asked. "If I'm interviewed, and I say my name is ‘Sugar Plum' aren't I supposed to be cited as ‘Mr. Plum?' Or if that is known to the reporter as not my real or legal name, that is noted, and then I'm still referred to as ‘Sugar Plum,' no?"
Such outrage and confusion reflects not only the loss of the community Alexander built, but the sense that contemporary newsrooms believe they can use their positions of power to bring down not only the powerful and well-connected, but anyone out of whom an example can be made.
"Even without the doxxing threat, a lot of people on SSC thought a NYT article about the blog, even a friendly one, would have bad consequences," Friedman said, "and a lot of them were worried that the journalist might be pretending to be friendly but planning to write a hostile article. At this point it's clear that a lot of people regard the press as dangerously irresponsible with regard to the effects of what it writes on others."
Even Alexander, asked whether he worried about newspapers' attempts to reveal damaging information about less-than-notable people, said he was coming around to being concerned.
"I wasn't a few days ago—I assumed that the relevant rules were better than this—but yes, I think the principle is also important," he said. "If this goes well, I hope I can use the platform it gives me to ask the Times and others to reconsider their policies on this matter."
Published under: New York Times