Zach Kouwe fired again

By Felix Salmon
June 12, 2010
fired for plagiarism. The proximate cause of the firing was a complaint from the WSJ, but he'd had run-ins with other publications in the past, including nicking a memo from Dealbreaker without attribution. That didn't stop Dealbreaker hiring Kouwe in April. Which seemed a bit odd at the time, and which in hindsight was certainly a mistake, since now they've gone and fired him. But it wasn't for plagiarism, this time.

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In February, a NYT blogger, Zachery Kouwe, was fired for plagiarism. The proximate cause of the firing was a complaint from the WSJ, but he’d had run-ins with other publications in the past, including nicking a memo from Dealbreaker without attribution. That didn’t stop Dealbreaker hiring Kouwe in April. Which seemed a bit odd at the time, and which in hindsight was certainly a mistake, since now they’ve gone and fired him. But it wasn’t for plagiarism, this time.

I spoke to Matt Creamer, the executive editor of Breaking Media, Dealbreaker’s parent. He sent me this statement:

Zachery Kouwe was a freelance contributor on Dealbreaker for just over two months. We ended the relationship on Thursday after it came to our attention that he wrote emails to Dealbreaker commenters referencing their workplaces. Our readers and commenters trust us with personal information and we take that responsibility very seriously. Anyone who registers on our sites should feel confident their information is secure.

For the backstory, read the comments to this blog entry — the last one that Kouwe posted on the site. One anonymous commenter — and Dealbreaker prizes its commenters’ anonymity greatly — wrote that “Kouwe e-mailed me the other day to tell me he ‘knew’ where I worked”, and later posted a screenshot of the emails in question. It seems that Kouwe obtained the commenter’s email address — presumably through his privileged access to the commenter login system — and then emailed the commenter to tell him exactly where he worked. And this didn’t only happen once, as a different commenter explained:

It crosses a line when Zach sends unsolicited emails to posters (which I can bear witness too although in my instance it was entirely harmless). Many of us work at shops where unapproved communication with media outlets quickly leads to termination.

Dealbreaker’s editor, Bess Levin, replied:

What happened is NOT condoned by Dealbreaker and you can rest assured we’ve taken the necessary steps to ensure it will not be happening again.

The necessary step in question was, clearly, firing Kouwe. (Officially, Kouwe resigned from the NYT, and he was only ever a freelancer at Dealbreaker, so if you’re splitting hairs you can make the case that he wasn’t technically fired either time. But he was fired both times.)

Kouwe declined to comment on the situation, but it seems that two months of aggressive needling from Dealbreaker’s commenters finally got to him. There’s no doubt that the commenters on the site — who are not representative of its readers, and who can be extremely mean — applied a lot of negative pressure on Kouwe from day one.

But at a site like Dealbreaker, commenter anonymity has to be non-negotiable. The problem is that complete anonymity can result in incoherent chaos, and as a result the editors encourage a move to pseudonymity instead:

A great many of our commenters have a quite reasonable fear of publicly writing on the site. Wall Street is notoriously ill-humored about unauthorized comments. This is one reason we make such a big deal of promising to keep comments and tips anonymous for those who don’t want to read their names among the pixels of DealBreaker. But it sometimes becomes confusing with so many people writing under the same name—Anonymous. We’d like to gently suggest that each of you chose a pseudonym and try to stick with it. It’s a small step but one that we think will greatly improve the comments section.

The danger with this system is that if you sign up for a pseudonym using your personal email address, and then post a comment from your work IP address, Dealbreaker’s editors, if they’re feeling aggressive, can use that information to find out where you work. As a result, it’s imperative that Dealbreaker’s commenters trust its editors not to do that kind of thing. Clearly, in Kouwe’s case, they couldn’t.

Kouwe himself, interestingly, never left a comment on the site. I said after he was fired from the NYT that he simply didn’t understand what blogs were all about, and this episode only reinforces that judgment. One of the biggest differences between journalists and bloggers is that journalists often have a bizarre phobia of making an appearance in their own comments sections, while bloggers feel that’s an important part of what they do daily. But if you’re a journalist who feels constrained from engaging with commenters directly, then maybe that helps push you towards less kosher means of engagement.

Kouwe isn’t evil, but he clearly isn’t cut out to be a blogger, either. There can be a lot of pressures in the world of professional blogging — pressures to come up with stories, pressures from commenters — and when faced with those pressures, Kouwe seems to have a habit of buckling and doing something unethical. It’s a personal weakness, and it’s sad, because Kouwe is a genuinely well-liked guy. I wish him all the best, in some area outside blogging.

20 comments

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Maybe Kouwe hasn’t been so much fired as overwhelmed by desire that nobody should be able to figure out where he actually works.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Felix, I’m glad you posted this thorough analysis, which is dead on about blogging generally, but maybe you haven’t spent enough time at Dealbreaker to see:

A. How bad of a blogger Kouwe is.
B. How justified the comments criticizing him were.
C. How impossible it is to defend Kouwe as a decent blogger, journalist, or professional person (at least as revealed through his work and actions in this matter).

The reason Kouwe has struggled at both of his jobs is that he really has no idea how to add value to information that’s already in the public domain, which is a large part of the job for journalists AND bloggers. First he tried plagiarizing to cover up the fact that he doesn’t know much about anything and is not a very skilled writer. When the NYT busted him, he shifted to out-of-context and poorly selected quotes followed by poorly written paraphrases and lame jokes at Dealbreaker. I would be hard-pressed to point to anything he did that qualified as informative, analytical, or humorous. For all that I criticize your blogging when you make a weaker post, many of your posts add significant value to the material you’re quoting, because you always link, perhaps quote an interesting portion, but then add your interpretation, analysis, or humor. Kouwe simply doesn’t know how to do any of this effectively. He may be a fun guy to drink a beer with (I don’t know), but he should not be a writer and he has now violated basic ethical obligations of writing jobs twice in an effort to avoid that fact.

Posted by najdorf | Report as abusive

Do they have plans to restrict who on staff can view e-mail / IP addresses of commenters? It’s not clear that it needs to be more than a couple people.

Posted by absinthe | Report as abusive

@absinthe– it’s not more than a couple people. In fact, now it’s exactly two. Only people who have access to the publishing platform can view email/IP addresses. Prior to Thursday, at Dealbreaker, that was myself, Zach and Matt Creamer. Now it’s just me and Matt.

Posted by BessLevin | Report as abusive

I know that commenting here on Felix’s posts a quite a lot less than on DB or any of henry blodget’s various outlets and I admit that I don’t always comment/read the comments here but it seems to me that while Felix does engage his “audience” quite a bit, I rarely see him join in on the comments on his blogs. Again, I caveat that I don’t always read the comments so my impression may be slightly off.

And this is not a slagging off of DB, but the sheer meanness of their anonymous commenters is just tiring and reason why I don’t read them. Lack of meaningful conversation is I guess another way of putting it.

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

>>
Prior to Thursday, at Dealbreaker, that was myself, Zach and Matt Creamer. Now it’s just me and Matt.
<<

If that is indeed the case, then how did Kouwe gain any sort of information if he was never on list of people who could view email/IP?

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

GregHao, read it again. Zach was on the list, and now, obvs, he’s off. As for engaging in the comments, I do it less than some, more than others. But I certainly don’t make it a rule *never* to do it, as Kouwe seemingly did.

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive

Felix, haha, you’re right! Clearly out to lunch on that one, apologies.

And the previous comment re: your not engaging more here, it isn’t meant as any sort of slight but rather an impression. There are already plenty of other platforms upon which you are quite active.

Posted by GregHao | Report as abusive

Your comments are not at all the same as comments in DB, which are a nearly pure distillation of all the malice and cruelty that lurk behind the civilized facade. I known this has no bearing on DB’s business model, which is like porn, but is the 1st Amendment intended to protect malice, cruel, and hateful speech? This includes Gawker, I suppose.

Posted by xyz70 | Report as abusive

One thing that must be said for Kouwe: he did have that very solid story in the Times on Capco (excess protection for brokerage accounts) up in Vermont and what a ridiculous sham it was. A story which, by the way, quickly fell to the ground with minimal follow-up, though Felix and Dealbreaker did note it at the time.

Are we really 100% clear that that problem is in the rearview?

Posted by ClarkTroy | Report as abusive

@xyz70

“sticks & stones may break my bones…”

Every writer, blogger, and professional, regardless of industry/field has to deal with haters and flamers. If you can’t stand the heat, get the F’ out of the fire, that is, if you’re going to publish your words, you should be prepared for the inevitable storm of criticism, so its no excuse or rationale that DB commenters are malicious or mean.

I, as well as others, offered constructive criticism, which had Kouwe taken to heart & worked at, would have likely seem him still employed. Alas, he didn’t; can’t help a man who can’t or isn’t willing to help himself.

Posted by Anal_yst | Report as abusive

@Anal_yst: DB is less about finance than a culture of malice. I only read it when they’re “reporting” on someone I don’t like. Like porn, they cater to my baser instincts. Something about the culture of finance exacervates the natural tendency of internet discourse to be mean-spirited. Zero sum self-esteem issues or something. It’s simply repellant and there’s nothing at all to excuse that conduct though you say Kouwe’s conduct isn’t excused by the malicious tenor of commenters and blog postings of Bess Levin on DB. Kouwe’s a blip; guys like you represent pervasive tendency of the Internet to worsen human misery.

Posted by xyz70 | Report as abusive

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