Against the New York Times

I’ve been reading Scott Alexander since the days of his LiveJournal and Lesswrong posts (over a decade ago). Scott is an amazing writer. Over the years he has provided countless thoughtful and informative posts on a wide range of topics. He is also one of the nicest and most charitable people I have encountered.

And the New York Times has endangered his safety and his livelihood for no good reason.

Scott recently decided to delete his entire blog (archive) in response to an upcoming New York Times article that promises to reveal his real name. Scott is a psychiatrist. In his most recent (and only remaining) post, he explains why publishing his real name could be harmful:

I think it’s plausible that if I became a national news figure under my real name, my patients – who run the gamut from far-left anarchists to far-right gun nuts – wouldn’t be able to engage with me in a normal therapeutic way. I also worry that my clinic would decide I am more of a liability than an asset and let me go, which would leave hundreds of patients in a dangerous situation as we tried to transition their care.

When I expressed these fears to the reporter, he said that it was New York Times policy to include real names, and he couldn’t change that.

Apparently, the New York Times has a policy on using real names. From their Guidelines on Integrity (archive):

No reader should find cause to suspect that the paper would knowingly alter facts. For that reason, The Times refrains outright from assigning fictional names, ages, places or dates, and it strictly limits the use of other concealment devices.

If compassion or the unavoidable conditions of reporting require shielding an identity, the preferred solution is to omit the name and explain the omission. (That situation might arise, for example, in an interview conducted inside a hospital or a school governed by privacy rules.) If a complex narrative must distinguish among several shielded identities, it may be necessary to use given names with last initials or, less desirable, given names alone (Hilary K.; Ashley M.; Terry). Descriptions may serve instead (the lawyer; the Morristown psychotherapist). As a rare last resort, if genuine given names would be too revealing, real or coined single initials (Dr. D, Ms. L) may be used after consultation with senior editors. The article must gracefully indicate the device and the reason.

Their stated policy seems rather strict in favoring the use of real names. In practice, it’s not so clear-cut. There are many examples of the Times avoiding any mention of subjects’ real names, typically with little or no justification. Here are a few cases:

The streamers did not provide their legal names to The New York Times. In years past, women gamers who have spoken out against the industry using their legal names have been subjected to further harassment, hacking and doxxing.

Reporter: It’s still unclear what the true story is of the Canadian known as Abu Huzayfah al-Kanadi and the time he says he spent…

A second person who checked out the women’s restroom — and who asked not to be identified because she has always wanted to be an anonymous source — reported her findings by email…

Mr. Moss, which is not his real name — more on that to come — took part in a doomed attempt to save the Café Edison, a beloved Times Square coffee shop whose landlord was looking to replace it with a classier establishment.

A therapist and a writer, he says he is worried that clients might object to his activism.

“A therapist and a writer”, hmmm… who else fits that description? Oh right, Scott Alexander!

I hope these examples make it clear that in practice, the New York Times has no strict policy on using real names. If anything, they seem eager to protect the identities of people who would be harmed by having their real names published. This is why I am extremely suspicious of their motives for enforcing their real name policy against Scott. For some reason I cannot fathom, one of their reporters misled Scott about their name policy, then decided to publish Scott’s real name against his wishes. And because of this, we are all worse off. Scott is worse off. His patients are worse off. His readers are worse off.

Slate Star Codex was an island of sanity in an ocean of madness. For now, it is gone.

What You Can Do

If you have a subscription to the New York Times, cancel it. If a reporter from the Times asks you for an interview or for information, refuse to talk to them and explain why.

In fact do not talk to journalists in general. If you must, record everything. Journalists will quote you out of context, selectively edit your words, and even make up quotes and attribute them to you. All of these things have happened to me or to people I know. I’m sure there are some good journalists, but the bad ones are the majority of every major news organization.

The old New York Times is dead. The New York Times of today is a wolf wearing the skin of a reputable newspaper. The sooner more people realize that, the sooner NYT’s influence wanes and the sooner that innocent, interesting people like Scott will feel free to spread their ideas.

When commenting, remember: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?