New Yorkers notoriously like to complain, and they aren’t usually shy about doing so.
So a recent New York Times op-ed piece under the headline “Disney World on the Hudson” didn’t strike me as anything unusual. Though I had never heard of its author, Jeremiah Moss, his column was pretty standard fare for The Times. Moss griped about the growing popularity of the city's High Line Park, criticized the rich and vilified gentrification.
But when I reached the bottom of the column, I was surprised to discover that “Jeremiah Moss” is a pen name. Moss, who writes the blog “Vanishing New York,” has been profiled in a variety of outlets, including The Village Voice and The New York Observer, but always under his pseudonym.
Why on earth did a reputable outlet for news and views, such as The New York Times, publish Moss’ everyman affectations under a pseudonym? Pen names are for Syrian freedom fighters. They are for political prisoners whose writings are smuggled out of their jail cells. They are for people in the Witness Protection Program. They are not for snide pundits to vent about tourists.
If we want to have a civil discussion of worthwhile topics, and the writer is not risking his or her life or well-being to participate, there is no reason not to require an opinion piece to carry the author's real name. Writing anonymously is a license to be rude and patronizing, as Moss demonstrated with observations such as “[…] the High Line has already become another stop on the must-see list for out-of-towners, another chapter in the story of New York City’s transformation into Disney World.” The condescension is palpable. Lots of people go to Disney World every year. Are they all stupid? How dare tourists try to enjoy beautiful or unusual parts of the city they visit, Moss’ piece implies.
While writers who use their real names can certainly be nasty as well, they must at least be ready to stand by their words.
It is not a huge surprise that outlets such as The Village Voice or The New York Observer permit a writer to be anonymous for no compelling reason. Thoughtful discussion is not necessarily their main objective. Perhaps that’s also the case at The Times. But The Times at least pays lip service to the importance of writers taking responsibility for what they write. In reply to the FAQ, “Should I use my real name when making a comment?”, it says, “Please fill in the name field with your real name. We have found that people who use their names carry on more engaging, respectful conversations.”
Some newspapers prohibit pen names altogether. The Washington Post will not consider anonymous or pseudonymous op-ed submissions. The Communications Consortium Media Center’s centralized list of requirements for op-eds and letters to the editor shows that many papers ban anonymous letters to the editor, and nearly all of those listed require a name and contact information for op-ed authors. Either The Times knows Moss’ identity and agreed not to share it, or its opinion staff felt there was a compelling reason to allow him to retain his anonymity. Nothing in the article he wrote suggests why.
We ask those who comment on this column at our firm's website to provide their real names. Absent a compelling reason for anonymity, our moderators will not approve anonymous items for posting. We're glad to publish replies that disagree with our opinions, but we insist that the replies be civil and attributed to the author.
When a relatively small site like ours requires real names in order to encourage thoughtful discussion, it’s not particularly heartening that New York’s self-proclaimed paper of record won’t do the same. Even YouTube, long derided as the home of some of the lowest-quality comments on the web, is trying to move away from usernames and toward real names, largely in an effort to add accountability to comments on its videos.
There is limited space in The Times’ opinion pages. Back in 2004, David Shipley, the op-ed editor at the time, wrote that “On a day with two columnists and an advertisement, Op-Ed has room for about 1,200 words of type. That's it.” He added, “Roughly 1,200 unsolicited submissions come to our office every week via e-mail, fax and the United States Postal Service.”
It is a privilege to appear in the section. Authors should respect that privilege and include their real names and, in most cases, the newspaper should require them to do so.