In the Nasher Fight, the Morning News Has a Double Standard

The paper will protect commenters' privacy if it likes what they say.

We remember what a conversation is, right? More than one voice talking? For the sake of conversation, allow me, if you will, to be the other voice opposed to the unified one-note civic chorale calling for the public hanging of public relations man Mike Snyder, who set up some fake Facebook accounts so he could comment under pseudonyms on blogs on behalf of a client.

To help an attorney representing a downtown condo tower, Snyder created the accounts under false names and then used the accounts to register himself as a commenter on blogs at The Dallas Morning News and at D Magazine, a local publication.

Museum Tower has been locked in a fierce dispute with the Nasher Sculpture Garden over the Nasher's complaint that reflected light from Museum Tower's glass skin is wrecking the Nasher's galleries. On this issue the Dallas establishment has lined up as a monolith to shun Museum Tower, its owners and anyone who speaks for it, just as the establishment in Dallas has lined up over issues from the JFK assassination 50th anniversary to the Inland Port project.

Every story, every column, every blog and every tweet from The Dallas Morning News will sing the same song and espouse the same point of view. Museum Tower must be shunned. As always, the main and most powerful argument is simply that. They are shunned. That is all we need to know, because then we know that if we even listen to them, we will be shunned, too.

In fighting against the shunners, why did Snyder need to post comments with fake accounts? He wouldn't talk to me about it on the record, so I'm left to attack the question more generically. First of all, is there something intrinsically wrong, morally or ethically, with anonymous speech or its trickier cousin, pseudonymous speech, in which the speaker assumes a fake name to further camouflage his own identity?

Hope not. Anonymous and pseudonymous speech are stitched deep in the American concept of free speech, as they were woven into the very origins of our nation. The first public discussion of freedom and liberty in the colonies began when the letters of "Cato" (not his real name) began to appear in American newspapers in 1720.

Tom Paine's pamphlet, "Common Sense," published in 1776, one of the most important sources of the popular concept of American liberty, did not include anywhere on its pages the name Thomas Paine. It was signed "An Englishman."

From the beginning of our nation, American courts and especially the Supreme Court have protected anonymous and pseudonymous speech as essential to the preservation of liberty. The idea has always been that you should be able to challenge the legitimacy of the crown — or even say the king's a fool — and not pay with your head, your livelihood or your freedom.

Of course there are limits on anonymous speech, but they are the same limits imposed on named speech. You can't libel another person or infringe on his copyright or defraud him of money anonymously any more than you could get away with it by giving your right name. But the courts have always held that real damage to a person or to the law is the test for forcing an anonymous person to be named. Not liking what the person has to say is never the test. American law specifically protects anonymous speech when it is attacked merely because someone disagrees with what is said.

Apparently The Dallas Morning News does not afford its readers and the people who access its web pages the same consideration. In fact, its promise to protect the personal information of readers is more like the apple the witch gave to Snow White.

Its original story revealing that Snyder had faked Facebook personae suffered a curious omission. Normally an investigative piece of this type explains exactly how a wrongdoer was caught by reporters, for a host of reasons. Instead, the News story suggested indirectly that reporters had sleuthed out Snyder's fake Facebook characters from emails produced by open records demands.

Snyder did tell me one thing on the record. I asked him if Morning News reporters had told him they had evidence from the newspaper's computer servers proving that he was the commenter who had accessed their blogs under fake names via Facebook. Snyder said, "Yes."

The privacy policy of A.H. Belo Corp., owner of the Morning News, gives the clear impression that Belo will do whatever it can to protect personal information of readers and web page visitors from violation by third parties. Under a heading, "What Safeguards Do We Put in Place to Protect Your Personal Information?" the policy states:

"A.H. BELO maintains reasonable safeguards to protect the security and integrity of the Personal Information that you provide to us. However, no security system is impenetrable and we cannot guarantee the security of our database. Nor can we guarantee that the information you supply won't be intercepted while being transmitted to us over the Internet." I would come away from that statement with the impression the newspaper will do what it can to protect me from prying eyes who might seek to learn or reveal my personal information.

I know of one occasion when we have outed an anonymous commenter at the Observer. In 2010, anonymous comments on our blogs suggested that the local chairman of the Republican Party was the focus of a criminal investigation by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. We determined that the accusation, which turned out to be untrue, was coming from computers in Watkins' offices. The paper saw a clear public interest in publishing the real identity of the false accuser.

But when we outed Watkins, we revealed immediately in stories and blog posts how and why we did it — by tracing computer IP addresses. The News' story on Snyder made no mention of use of information from the News' servers, although Managing Editor George Rodrigue did admit to it in response to my question.

Rodrigue told me that his reporters' curiosities about Snyder were aroused by similar wording and basic talking points in posts Snyder had contributed both under fake names and his own name. I'm sure that's true. By the way, interested parties comment under fake names all the time on our own blogs here at the Observer — some of them obvious insiders with what is obviously inside information.

It's not just obvious to us that they are insiders. Usually other commenters, who are probably insiders on the other side, spot them before we do and call them out on it.

Rodrigue said, "We then checked our website's system logs and found that Mr. Snyder and the fake posters were all sending us messages from the same IP address, which appeared to be somewhere in Arlington," he said. "Our website's terms of service do not guarantee anonymity, but then again, the internal research we conducted did not involve the disclosure of any personal information about Mr. Snyder. To this day, for instance, we do not know the physical location of the computers involved."

Rodrigue says that the paper traced only Snyder's IP address from its servers. A close reading of the News' privacy policy and terms of service, however, reveals that its servers scoop up immense amounts of information about every single computer that contacts their system, including browser type, browser identifiers, language, plug-ins, Internet domain and operating system, the site you visited before visiting them and the site you visited after leaving, content and advertisements you view and links you click on while navigating within their services, and unique identifiers including mobile device identification numbers that can pinpoint your physical location. Taken en masse, this information amounts to a unique fingerprint for every computer that reaches the Morning News.

I asked Rodrigue why the paper thought it was fair play to use information from its servers to out Snyder but made no equivalent effort to out another frequent pseudonymous commenter, "Wylie H.," a fake-name warrior who fights on the side of the Nasher. By the way, my own very inexpert Internet sleuthing last week showed me that Wylie H. has accessed Facebook from within City Hall but also from within The Dallas Morning News building.

"I can say that we see many differences between Wylie H. and Mr. Snyder," Rodrigue said. He said first of all that because Wylie H. fights on the side of the Nasher, not Museum Tower, he is not connected with a public institution. But Museum Tower is a private, ultra-luxe condo building for rich people. The argument that it is a government agency because it was funded by the Dallas police and fire pension fund is specious.

Rodrigue also said this of Snyder: "His fake people were ganging up on real people, in our comments area."

That brings us to the issue of fake people. Why did Snyder create fake people on Facebook? He wouldn't tell me on the record, so I will surmise.

The News, D Magazine and the Dallas Observer invite you to comment anonymously on their blogs. The only way you can do so at the News is by registering through Facebook. Making up a fake Facebook identity is a violation of Facebook's terms of service but not the law. A person might go the extra step of creating a fake Facebook persona to register, in addition to using a fake comment name, because that person did not trust the Morning News not to look back at his Facebook account and out him with it.

So who turned out to be wrong about that one?

I don't know Snyder. I'm not a great fan of scorched-earth public relations, mainly because it makes more work for me. But in Dallas, you always have to ask the question, who scorched the earth first? If you're the shunned person and you see the earth-scorchers at the Morning News and City Hall and the Dallas Citizens Council coming at you, what do you do? Maybe you call Mike Snyder.

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26 comments
Subnx
Subnx

The whiners at the Nasher are just mad because they let the easement expire and won't turn their fancy oculists 90 degrees to the left which would fix the problem. They are a bunch of spoiled artsy rich folk who are having a hissy fit when they don't get their way.

nammer
nammer

I finally figured it out...it's not that you are for Museum Tower, you're against the Dallas Morning News...it's like one big Ford/Chevy pissing contest...all you need is the window sticker of you peeing on the DMN.  Now it all makes sense...

gimme
gimme

Ray Nasher would have jumped on a commercial property like the Museum Tower in a heartbeat and wrapped its still-beating heart in the Dallas Morning News classfieds.

GrouchoMarx
GrouchoMarx

The Dallas Morning News has no credibility left.  D Magazine never had any to start with. I find it ironic that I now watch a Comedy Central show (The Daily Show) and read a free weekly newspaper (The Dallas Observer) in order to get news with journalistic integrity.  It's a brave (and strange) new world.

sparr75154
sparr75154

This article and the opinions of JimSX are a bunch of crap.

jerrya1066
jerrya1066

Is it really a fair comparison to talk about 18th century patriots writing about potential over throwing of an oppressing government under pseudonym  vs. hired professional PR man creating fictitious accounts to try to change public opinion about a financial dispute?  Fake names when lives are at stake are expected.  Fake names by professional PR men in an attempt to sway public opinion, that's just dirty pool.  People don't like being duped and this was a dupe for dough.  

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

Speaking of the Inland Port, I notice that Hillwood is diving in with a few million s.f. of warehouse space. Is there equity involved?

dc005
dc005

Come on,  guys,  this is way out of proportion.  I have a fake facebook account 'cause I won't give them access to everybody I know,  everybody they know,  my birthday,  etc.  


From all I've read,  Mike did what a PR person is supposed to do,  participated in discussions on discussion boards.  Nobody expects the Pulitzer Committee to visit anytime soon,  part of the attraction is the rough and tumble,  and,  as Jim writes,  inside info from insiders.  

I'm an insider on this:   a year or so ago a major local media was setting up a division that would plant product promos into 'social media discussions.'  There's a couple organizations of companies that do it.  On "comment boards"  you shouldn't expect journalistic ethics,  if there's any left.

I've been around media all my life.  Mike did nothing I wouldn't (and probably have) already done.  


Cut him some slack.


And no,   I'm not Mike or his wife or his ... 

WylieH
WylieH

[(Rodrigue) said first of all that because Wylie H. fights on the side of the Nasher, not Museum Tower, he is not connected with a public institution. ]

I'm actually not fighting FOR the Nasher; I'm fighting AGAINST the pension fund's mismanagement, in general.  So this is more like "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

markzero
markzero

I think it's immoral to astroturf, period. I'd like to see someone interview Snyder and ask him why he thinks this is acceptable.

PerryMoore
PerryMoore

I appreciate the Thomas Paine comparison, Mr. Schutze, although I recognize a difference between political speech and propaganda. In light of recent revelations regarding the extent to which my privacy is routinely invaded by my government, however, I am not particularly outraged to find that DMN also lies to me about its efforts to protect my privacy.

Obummer
Obummer

Yo maybez someonez shouldz hirez muh angerz managementz consultant Joanne Slowburner.

marcbloch44
marcbloch44

C'mon Jim, everybody knows perfectly well he was inventing fake people in order to create the appearance of support for Museum Tower, among people who aren't being paid by Museum Tower. Are you not able to process this, or just unwilling to acknowledge it?

Yes, there's no shortage of real people - real, even if we are anonymous - who are willing to vent about the wanton destruction of one of our local treasures. Fine, it's not your thing, but can't you at least recognize its importance? Honestly, why keep dumping on the Nasher - they aren't the ones whose attorneys have actually been going after people.

If Snyder had to make up imaginary supporters, that should tell you something! Museum Tower is unpopular for good reason. Nobody should support them, and basically nobody does - except for you, apparently. Your contrarian energies need better guidance.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@jerrya1066 

The thing about important legal and constitutional principles, especially as they apply to liberty, is that they apply equally in all centuries. Free speech wasn't just for those history dudes. 

SIGH
SIGH

@jerrya1066

Funny you don't mention the fake bloggers on the other side?  We've lost our way in this country economically and morally, because for some reason, people like you think the old guard and their representatives get a hall pass on morality.  After getting to the other side of the past decade, most of us are over it.   Not demanding morality was how politicians were able to run rough shod over, an obviously successful pension fund, otherwise, why else would the private sector and politicians suddenly want to control it, during a bad economy, when no one was financing.  

As for shunning, if you owned a major corporation, would you relocate your business into a known incestuous, mean spirited climate, with plenty of help from egotistical Arts District employees, who are using sucker punch PR, rather than working hard to  get our Arts District mentioned in the NYTimes for something like, oh, I don't know, ART, maybe?

If this keeps up, before too long, buildings and arts groups, with "Gone to Oklahoma" signs tacked to their doors, will be the norm.  What a shameful, sad day for a City, that offered so much promise and hope, just a few short years ago when the Winspear,  Wyly and our own City Center opened to be the star cherry on a delicious cake, that was our long history of arts and artists.

HerbL
HerbL

@markzero

While we're at it, be sure to ask Rodrigue and the DMN why he did not out all of the PAID ED's and employees of the Arts District organizations, who have been blogging under anonymous names, on company time - which is paid for by our donations, btw. Under Rodrigue's definition, why is that not considered gang like activity?  

They blogged very hard to get the art community to take sides over something that had nothing to do with our fine talent, the price of tickets or membership to our respectable arts organizations. And for what? Something that can be fixed, at the expense of the tower for this and future towers, that grow up around the Nasher? 

Growing pains for a new neighborhood, are not out of the ordinary.  Uptown had its share in the beginning. 

Why are these employees suddenly silent and too fearful to make a comment? Because Jim is right. What Rodrigue ordered, on a dime, is far more dangerous to our liberties. One has to assume these employees, in addition to patrons who demand compromise, have become intimidated and are afraid.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@markzero 

So you believe congress should pass laws stripping away two centuries of decisions protecting anonymous and pseudonymous speech as integral and in fact crucial to the right of free speech? Or you just don't like Snyder?

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@PerryMoore 

I think corporate privacy raiders are a way bigger threat to your personal well-being than a bunch of big clunky government agencies weighted down by iron skirts of rules and regulation.

jerrya1066
jerrya1066

@JimSX @jerrya1066 Yup, true.  But, if you are really nothing more than marketer trying to shape public opinion for money, then I think you should be outed whenever that is discovered.  

jerrya1066
jerrya1066

@SIGH @jerrya1066 Um, corps are relocating to Texas and Dallas regularly, so the "sucker punch pr" isn't much of an issue for them.  As for arts groups leaving...again, the reality is the Dallas arts scene is the most vibrant that it has been in the city's history.  20 years ago, if building owner did what this building owner is doing, I seriously doubt we'd have even heard about it.  

If the "other side" has fake bloggers, I don't care for that either.  I guess it is naive to think that commentors are offering a personal opinion rather than being paid to deliver the drivel of their masters.  I'm all for outing every single paid commentor for what they are. 

RobertStinson
RobertStinson

@HerbL @markzero At some point, someone will write about the proliferation of journalists who comment on their own stories and blogs, and attack their counterparts at other media organizations. This happens in Dallas. A lot. In fact, I'd like to know the policies of all the major media orgs.

markzero
markzero

@JimSX How did you leap to either of those conclusions?

marcbloch44
marcbloch44

@JimSX Nice of you to clarify. Sorry to see that you think some of us are disingenuous - I wouldn't say that about you. But you're still wrong. If pointing this out makes me a "Nasherite," in your view, then I'll just have to try to bear the burden.

Again, what you're disregarding is that Snyder wasn't just some "fake name blogger" who got singled out and picked on. The thing about him is that he made up not just one alias, but more than one. That wasn't to guard his own privacy, that was an attempt to create a false impression about how widely shared some views (really only Snyder's own) are, among the readers. In this case, it was a pretty crude and stupid attempt at deception, and I think most informed readers probably saw through it anyway. But actually being able to catch Snyder himself, in the act - yes, that was news, and exposing it was perfectly appropriate.

I agree with you that the News should be equally willing to blow the whistle on other sockpuppeteers. You seem to suggest that "Nasherites" are equally guilty of it. I don't think that's true at all - that's not what the Nasher needs. No doubt other interested parties have chimed in, and done so anonymously, but among the rest of us real people who care, I think it just so happens that we're almost entirely on one side of this debate, and not the other. George Rodrigue tried to tell you this. It looks like you missed his point.

I think what's most appalling here is that the same reporting by the News documented a blatant case of attempted intimidation, perpetrated not by "Nasherites" or by the News itself, but by the pension fund's own attorney, threatening an individual for speaking out, contacting her employers, forcing her to delete comments on Facebook. You're surely aware of all this.  And yet, in your view, Mike Snyder is the guy who has suffered unfairly in this dispute. You seem very sensitive to his predicament. Are you equally sympathetic to Museum Tower's other representatives? Has the big bad earth-scorching News been ganging up on them as well?

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@jerrya1066 @JimSX 

The fake-name blogger only expects protection because the Morning News invites him to comment, invites him to be anonymous and gives the impression it will guard his anonymity. The Morning News is not wrong to out the fake-name blogger if it outs all fake-name bloggers. What is obviously wrong here -- and it's disingenuous of the Nasherites commenting here to pretend they don't get this -- is for the News to  out only the fake-name blogger whose message it disagrees with. By the overwhelmingly one-sided posture of the newspaper, in every column and editorial, it's clear that the paper does not want people to hear the other side. In that context, the outing of Snyder alone is a betrayal of the implied warranty of privacy that the paper does extend and does honor for everybody else. To say Snyder doesn't deserve the same consideration because he's paid to comment is a massive denial, deliberate or not I don't know, of the overwhelming and obvious reality that tons of people are paid to comment all the time. I can excuse some of this because I know a lot of people have very little awareness of how the blogosphere really works or what it's all about. But the News knows. They are big-time blog-entrepreneurs, vacuuming up personal data about their readers and peddling it to marketers, politicians, who the hell knows. What this whole thing proves, by the way, is that if a political interest group, like the Nasher backers, wants access to the News' data in order to use it to carry out a political hit job, they can get it. I worry about that kind of thing a hell of a lot more than I do the NSA.  

 
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