Ed’s revelation of the identity of “Publius” (sorry, I just have to capitalize that P–he ain’t e.e. cummings) of the Obsidian Wings blog has stirred up some controversy in its own right, quite apart from the substance of the issues between them that led to that “outing.” Ed ably defends his action, while Jonathan Adler takes a different view and links to some others’ thoughts.
My own view is that–again apart from what brought them to this pass–neither John Blevins nor Ed breached any ethical standard of journalism in their simple acts. (And notwithstanding various rhapsodies over the wonders of the blogosphere, that’s all blogging is–the latest evolution of journalism.) Blevins’ writing under a pseudonym did not, in itself, do anyone any harm, and Jonathan Adler is right that such concealment “is not necessarily a cowardly or sinister act.” As the original Publius argued in Federalist No. 1, keeping one’s identity concealed can force readers to focus on the quality of your arguments, rather than on personalities. It’s harder to get ad hominem about a writer you can’t identify. So a pseudonym can serve a good purpose in public discourse.
Of course, if the pseudonymous writer stoops to low or unethical arguments himself, it’s harder to call him on it. It can be like swinging at someone while wearing a blindfold, if a writer deserves a comeuppance but you don’t know who he is. But that means the pseudonymous blogger might be said to impose a high standard on himself that only he is in a position to enforce, so long as he remains under the veil. So the ethics of writing under a pen name affects the writer as well as the reader.
On the other hand, exploding someone’s cover and revealing his identity breaches no ethical norm I can think of. Blevins had his reasons for writing as “Publius,” but Ed had no obligation to respect those reasons, and he didn’t have to catch Blevins in any form of unethical argumentation in order to “out” him. I’m sympathetic to Ed’s view that Blevins “smeared” him, but I haven’t weighed that matter very carefully, and I don’t think it counts for much on the ethical scorecard one way or the other. Ed reported a fact he had a right to tell, for whatever reason it suited him to tell it–including no particular reason at all other than that he found it useful at the moment he did it.
More than two centuries ago, when nearly everyone wrote political commentary under a pseudonym, there was often intense speculation about who was writing as “Publius” or “Brutus” (I have lately seen yet one more claim about who the latter was, a fact that has never been conclusively established), or “A Freeman” or “The Federal Farmer.” While public hints were sometimes offered, a lot of this speculation was kept to private correspondence between friends. Perhaps there was a kind of “hold fire” understanding, with neither side in major debates like the ratification of the Constitution able to foresee a lasting advantage to “outing” someone on the other side, since one’s own side might suffer the next casualty. But everyone also understood that they were using devices that were both useful and risky, and that anyone who could derive a decisive tactical advantage by exploding an adversary’s cover might do so, and no one would be in a position to cry “foul” about it–whatever the consequences to career, reputation, or personal relationships.
The norms of modern journalism nearly killed the use of the pseudonym, but blogging revived it in a big way. Now two practices are in conflict: “I can be more creative/forceful/safe by using a pen name” vs. “Be a mensch and own your own arguments.” There’s something to be said for both sides. But ethically, I can’t see how either one owes the other an inch of room.
Afterthought: I would, of course, take another view if we were talking about, say, the “outing” of a blogger living and writing in Tehran or Beijing, whose exposure would subject him to risk of prison, torture, or death. But this is not that case.