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

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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?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze