In a "Moral of the Story" posted late last night about anonymous blogging, The Ethicist -- a.k.a. Randy Cohen -- had this to say about the ethics of transparency:
To promote the social good of lively conversation and the exchange of ideas, transparency should be the default mode.... “Says who?” is not a trivial question. It deepens the reader’s understanding to know who is speaking, from what perspective, with what (nutty?) history, and with what personal stake in the matter.
But just two sentences later, Cohen put aside transparency concerns in quoting "the writer Katha Pollitt" -- camouflaging the fact that Pollitt happens to be Cohen's ex-wife. Without disclosing their history, Cohen proceeded to devote an entire paragraph to Pollitt's musings on the topic of anonymous commenters, and generously tossed in a hyperlink to her blog:
As the writer Katha Pollitt puts it: “I get a ton of hostile, misogynous, idiotic comments from anonymous trolls when I blog at The Nation. Sometimes I feel like I am dancing on the table for an audience of drunks. Not only is it dispiriting — and let’s not forget that women writers on the Internet receive vastly more hateful comments than male writers — it has nothing to do with the brisk and vigorous exchange of ideas often said to be the reason for anonymity. Because there are no ideas and no exchange.”
Ironic, isn't it? One paragraph after insisting that it "deepers a reader's understanding to know who is speaking," Cohen keeps that very understanding about Pollitt to himself -- as though to call her "the writer" is an adequate credential to be promoted as an expert by Cohen in the NYT.
Pollitt and Cohen were married in 1987. Now divorced, they have a daughter together and apparently remain friendly. (We found a web posting in which Pollitt encouraged her friends to attend a performance of a recently-produced Randy Cohen play.)
There's no rule we can find against a NYT reporter or contributor quoting a spouse, former spouse, or personal friend. But maybe there should be. It reflects laziness and a disdain for real reporting, which should involve more effort than pushing the speed dial on a reporter's cell phone.
Just as reporter Brad Stone got into trouble recently for failing to seek interview subjects outside his comfort zone for a page-one story, it seems to us esecially lazy for Cohen to quote his ex-wife as one of only two interviews included in his post. It also seems wrong for him not to disclose the relationship to readers.
It also strikes us as a bit disingenuous, in an Ethics essay that calls for transparency on the part of anonymous bloggers, for the Ethicist to fail such an obvious test of transparency himself.
We've emailed Cohen and NYT spokeswoman Catherine Mathis for comment.
UPDATE: NYT's Ethicist, Randy Cohen, Tells NYTPicker: "On Second Thought I Should Have Identified" Ex-Wife In NYT Column.