What an NYT Reporter’s Doxing Threat Says about the Paper’s ‘Standards’
The popular pseudonymous blogger behind Slate Star Codex claims that he’s been forced to delete the blog after a New York Times reporter threatened to reveal his identity. It is the latest example of the paper’s willingness to grant anonymity according to inconsistent, ideologically self-serving criteria.
In the only post remaining on the site, Slate Star Codex founder “Scott Alexander,” who claims to write under his real first and middle names while withholding his last name, reveals that he recently spoke to a Times technology reporter who expressed interest in writing a “mostly positive” article about his blog.
Danielle Rhoades Ha, vice president of communications for the Times, told National Review in a statement that “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.”
Slate Star Codex is a popular blog in the “rationalist” subculture with an active community of readers. It began in 2013 and became famous for technical deep-dives into a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, medicine, psychology, politics, and social science. Among other topics, Alexander has questioned “progressive” conventions around the mutability of intelligence in his writing. He also noted the threat posed by coronavirus well before many mainstream publications began devoting extensive coverage to it.
Perhaps the Times intended to cover this blog and the broader subculture it inhabits. But Alexander, who did not return a request for comment, writes that the supposedly flattering article would come with a catch — the Times had “discovered” Alexander’s full name and planned to reveal it in the story. When Alexander pushed back, the reporter told him “it was New York Times policy to include real names, and he couldn’t change that.”
“NYT was so insistent on using my real name and didn’t back down when I threatened to delete the blog,” he detailed further on Reddit.
Alexander explains that he wished to remain anonymous because his day job as a psychiatrist and his personal safety — he claims to have received many death threats — demanded it. “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,” he wrote in the last remaining post on his blog.
“After considering my options, I decided on the one you see now. If there’s no blog, there’s no story. Or at least the story will have to include some discussion of NYT’s strategy of doxxing random bloggers for clicks,” he continued.
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan identified the New York Times reporter as Cade Metz. Multiple users on the blog’s active Reddit subforum also claim that Metz reached out to them for comment. And emails reviewed by National Review confirm that Metz was indeed asking around for sources to speak on Slate Star Codex, without mentioning that he planned to reveal Alexander’s identity. “I am putting together a story about Slate Star Codex — a truly interesting and powerful voice and community, particularly at this time,” he wrote in one such email sent last week.
Matthew Keller, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, confirmed that he also spoke to Metz.
“We spoke about the blog, mostly in glowing terms. He did not reveal Scott Alexander’s true identity (and of course, I have no information to provide about that),” Keller said in an email. “I cannot recall if Cade spoke of revealing his true identity, but if so, I would have assumed that was done with Scott’s blessing. For what it’s worth, in general I do not agree with outing an anonymous blogger if they want to remain anonymous. Perhaps there are exceptions to that, but I don’t see this as one of them.”
Metz, Times technology editor Pui-Wing Tam, and Times associate managing editor for standards Philip Corbett did not return requests for comment on the story or on the editorial decision to publish Alexander’s full name.
In 2018, Corbett unpacked the paper’s policy regarding the granting of anonymity to sources. “Under our guidelines, anonymous sources should be used only for information that we think is newsworthy and credible, and that we are not able to report any other way,” Corbett wrote. “When the anonymous sourcing is central to the story, it generally must be approved by an even higher-ranking editor like a deputy managing editor,” he added.
The policy — which was announced in March 2016 by Corbett, Times executive editor Dean Baquet, and deputy executive editor Matt Purdy — was intended to tighten up what critics considered a lax policy on anonymous sourcing. The situation was considered by certain staffers to be so dire that former Times public editor Margaret Sullivan launched a feature called “AnonyWatch” to catalog the excessive granting of anonymity at the paper.
In 2014, the Times granted anonymity in a number of cases that could have, contra Corbett’s policy, been reported in many “other ways.” The paper granted anonymity to a past Oscar nominee who asked to withhold her identity “because she was afraid of looking bad,” as well as to a parent of a Middlebury sophomore who wanted “to avoid embarrassing her daughter.” A February 2015 story about renovations to the Port Authority’s Bus Terminal quoted a woman “who asked not to be identified because she has always wanted to be an anonymous source.”
But despite the changes, Corbett himself wrote in a 2017 post on sourcing for stories involving sexual assault that “since no set of guidelines can cover every situation, the best we can do is to try to balance those questions of fairness and privacy with our chief goal: to tell readers what we know.”
While there are differences between quoting an anonymous source and deliberately outing a public figure who is already anonymous, the lack of a hard-and-fast rule casts doubt on Metz’s professed inability to secure anonymity for Alexander.
Indeed, in a profile published earlier this year of “Chapo Trap House,” a popular socialist podcast hosted by unofficial Bernie Sanders surrogates, the Times identified one of the podcast’s co-hosts as “Virgil Texas,” explaining that “he lives and works under that pseudonym.”
Why the Times denied “Scott Alexander” the same right it granted to “Virgil Texas” is unclear. But since Donald Trump’s election, anonymous sourcing has come roaring back at the Times, with Baquet admitting that the 2016 had changed the way the paper would cover and write about the president.
It appears the exceptions made for Trump-related coverage have bled into the coverage of a pseudonymous blogger.