February 24, 2006
When anonymity is anonymous, and fiction becomes truth . . .
Young urban black males may live longer in prison, that does not reduce their natural lifespan, murder is unnatural (in my opinion - maybe not yours). Ditto with poaching of elephants.
As the subject of "truth" has been on my mind lately, I'm pondering a question of what I suppose might be called "ethics," although I'm not entirely sure. It involves the phenomenon of people who either will not identify themselves, or else hide behind undisclosed fictitious identities, but who nonetheless have no problem engaging people who do not hide their identity in debates.
While I like to know who it is I am arguing with, it isn't really necessary to know, but I do think it helps to at least know whether or not someone advancing an argument is anonymous or not. There's a sort of "level playing field" issue, especially where (as in my case) one side's real identity is disclosed. There's nothing dishonest about anonymity (or even a fictitious identity) but if the fact of anonymity -- the fact of the fiction? -- itself is kept hidden, I think that's a different matter.
In the case of commenter "Rowan Morrison," while it did occur to me that in theory someone might be impersonating Rowan Morrison, that there was such a local animal rights activist seemed beyond dispute. She has been officially quoted so many times that it never occurred to me that there might not be such a person.
When (in a post titled "Why activists win") I discussed the campaign by "Rowan Morrison's" group to remove Philadelphia Zoo's elephants, my point was not so much to dispute the elephant issue as it was to explain the mechanics of why the single-minded dedication of activists tends to defeat people who just want to be left alone (or simply stay in business):
What's always lost in the debate over the merits of each "cause" is that true activists never lose sight of the big picture. Individual "causes" are means to an end, but the people who are confronted by activists are only interested in making the immediate problem go away. In so doing, they end up strengthening and emboldening the movement behind the particular cause.My post quickly attracted the ire of "Rowan Morrison" -- who came to my site not to debate my point about activism, but to press the merits of her campaign to remove the elephants from the Philadelphia Zoo.
Considering her local fame, it never occurred to me that there was no such person as Rowan Morrison.
Until this morning when I read this article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer:
An animal rights activist said today that she hopes to mount some sort of legal challenge after being banned from the Philadelphia Zoo for comments she made about the facility's chief executive.That could easily be interpreted as a veiled threat, and apparently it was. Zoo offficials decided to ban Ms. Bessey from the premises -- an action Bessey contends is "illegal":
The police report did not mention Bessey by name.Bessey works as an attorney for a prestigious Philadelphia law firm -- Dechert LLP (one of those 400 dollar an hour type firms). Additional background on Marianne Bessey here.
What surprised me about the article was that in the past, every time I read about the elephant issue, I'd become quite accustomed to seeing Rowan Morrison quoted. After all, she's the official "spokesperson." It turns out that she's Marianne Bessey:
This afternoon, Bessey, who uses the name Rowan Morrison in her animal work, was in the concourse of Suburban Station, passing out buttons and collecting signatures.Huh? Was that fact just discovered yesterday?
There have been numerous articles like this in the Philadelphia Inquirer -- with not a hint about the identity of the "spokeswoman":
A local animal-rights group, which stages regular demonstrations outside the zoo demanding that the elephants be sent to a sanctuary, reacted cautiously to the decision.I'm no journalist, but isn't there a rule somewhere that if you're quoting someone who's not using his or her real name, that you're supposed to disclose that fact?
Bessey has also passed herself off as Rowan Morrison to the prestigious Washington Post:
A protest group, Friends of the Philly Zoo Elephants, has claimed this as a victory. The group maintains that elephants are roaming and foraging animals and need more space than zoos can give them. It and other animal rights activists say that penned-in elephants tend to get diseases and injuries they would not get in the wild. The Philadelphia group is pressing the zoo to donate its elephants to a sanctuary in Tennessee.Ditto CBS, local NBC news channel, Bloomberg.com. "Rowan Morrison" has also petitioned the Philadelphia City Council.
OK, I'm just a lowly blogger. I don't have the time or resources to verify the identity of anyone. Nor do I think it's particularly relevant in the case of a commenter to the blog. So I accepted her identity at its face value.
That was a mistake, and I apologize, but there's really no way I could have known, and her true identity wasn't relevant.
It still isn't. The point is not Marianne Bessey, Esq. Despite the fact that she's been identified in countless articles as "Rowan Morrison" she's not the real issue here, so much as the ethical process.
Is there one?
While I have no problem with fictitious identities, what I want to know is this: if an identity is fictitious, is there a duty to disclose that fact?
I don't think there's any right to know someone's identity, and I'm not talking about invading anyone's privacy. But if you are fictitious, shouldn't that fact be disclosed?
I wonder how many other spokespeople we see routinely "quoted" in what we assume is "official" news are actually not the people they appear to be.
If journalists know about a fictitious identity and don't disclose that fact, is there an ethical issue?
MORE: When I said Ms. Bessey "passed herself off" as Rowan Morrison, I was engaging in speculation under an assumption that might turn out to be unwarranted. It is entirely possible that she has disclosed her true identity all along, but that somehow it's been kept hidden.
Stay tuned, I guess.
MORE: Lest anyone misunderstand, Inquirer reporter Larry Eichel should be given credit for revealing the true identity of "Rowan Morrison." Apparently, the previous reporters are no longer interested in covering the story, and they either didn't verify who the "spokesperson" was, or knew and looked the other way.
I wrote to longtime journalist (and current blogger) Mark Tapscott, because of his expertise in these matters, and he emails as follows:
she [Bessey] had an obligation to tell the reporters who quoted her her real name and the reporters then had an obligation to tell readers the published name is not her real name and explain why the newspaper published the fake name rather than the real name.We'll see whether that happens.
Be sure to check out Mark Tapscott's blog, as he has some excellent pictures from today's pro-Denmark demonstration.
UPDATE: "Rowan Morrison" (in repeated comments below) states that she was misquoted in the newspapers, and cites the full text of her remarks, which were as follows:
You must live with Dulary's blood on your hands. You yourself are retiring in May - yet you have refused to allow Dulary to retire, instead claiming that she is reaching her "life expectancy" and preparing the public who pay your obscenely high salary for her death. You have outlived your life expectancy by some ten years, since the life expectancy of a human is 51 years (in sub-Saharan Africa, that is - I'm using the same logic you use to get a life expectancy of elephants of early 40's, isn't it fun to play around with statistics like that?)I know I'm really sticking my neck out, but for what it's worth, I don't think the Zoo Director should be "kept in a concrete closet for six months to hasten [his] demise." (As to the man's salary, I think it's about as relevant as that of "Rowan Morrison.")
"Rowan Morrison" also maintains that it's "okay" to use an undisclosed pseudonym. Whether that's "okay" is a matter of philosophy. Obviously, some people think it is okay. Which is why, (as I argue in this post) reporters need to ask a few basic questions. It's more and more apparent that they didn't.
MORE: "Rowan Morrison" also states that she did tell "some reporters, but not all" reporters her real name. What that means is that to if these reporters referred to her as "Rowan Morrison" without pointing out the pseudonymous nature of that name, they engaged in a serious breach of journalistic ethics.
In real life, saying someone is somebody else (when you know this is untrue) is called "lying."
posted by Eric on 02.24.06 at 06:54 AM
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