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.