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Analysis: Click-forward morality

By
SHAUN WATERMAN

WASHINGTON, March 3 (UPI) -- Imagine suddenly discovering that an informal, candid and somewhat indiscreet note that you had dashed off to a few friends had been forwarded all over the world and ended up on the Web, where a bunch of random strangers were questioning your observations, deconstructing your tone of voice and mocking small errors of spelling and punctuation.

How would you feel? Bewildered? Betrayed? Angry? Who would you blame?

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Now imagine that you are a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, that the private note described your experiences at a recent global summit to which you had been granted extraordinary access, and that it candidly referred to matters that were quite obviously off the record.

But if you are Newsday reporter Laurie Garrett, you don't have to imagine anything, because it all actually happened to her after she attended the World Economic Forum at the end of January in Davos, Switzerland.

"Hi guys. OK, hard to believe, but true. Yours truley (sic) has been hobnobbing with the ruling class," begins her note, which goes on to boast about her "full-on, unfettered, class A" access to the annual gathering of 3,000 of the world's most powerful and wealthy people.

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The note is so interesting in part because it includes much of what is normally kept out of or expunged from conventional journalistic coverage. There are pointed, personal observations -- Vicente Fox is "sexy and smart," the participants are "freaked out" by the possibility of "extreme economic gloom," and U.S. policy is seen there as "arrogant, bullyish."

It also has the tantalizing whiff of inside information. Garrett reveals that she attended a private dinner with the head of the Saudi secret police, watched Bill Clinton's off-the-record speech to delegates with President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, and that Chissano gave her a "remarkably candid," "blow-by-blow analysis of U.S. foreign policy."

"Her note was candid and fascinating, which is undoubtedly why her friends forwarded it to other friends," one of the dozen original recipients told United Press International, asking not to be named. Garrett's friend, who works at a major news organization, sent it to her partner. Several of the other recipients also sent it on to one or two friends or relatives.

You can guess the rest.

On Feb. 6, about a week after Garrett wrote it, the note -- which stripped of its e-mail headers identified the author only by the sign-off, "Laurie" -- was posted to the listserv of the Institute for Pyschohistory. The list is archived on the World Wide Web.

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On Feb. 11, a link to the IP list archive was posted on the MetaFilter, a Web site described by the Annenberg School for Communication's Online Journalism Review as a "community weblog." Anyone can join, and any member can post comments or links. Many of the site's more than 12,000 members, "serve as amateur reporters -- or at least homespun commentators," according to the OJR.

At the beginning, there was some doubt about the authenticity of the note. "Could this be true?" wrote the MetaFilter contributor who posted it, "or am I a sucker?"

The discussion about the note and its authenticity rapidly became a critique of both the minor errors of grammar and spelling and what one contributor called Garrett's "breathless teenager," tone. Some expressed doubt that a professional journalist, or anyone who writes for a living, could have been the author. Then it digressed into a long deconstruction of several economic observations it contained. It was three days before one of the contributors contacted Garrett.

This was how she learned that her e-mail had become very public property.

Garrett declines to discuss the matter, but her friend says she "was shocked and extremely upset."

"She felt that her personal boundaries were violated," her friend told UPI, "it was embarrassing to have her words picked apart (when) she believed she was sharing her personal observations with close friends."

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"Yes, I went to Davos," Garrett wrote to the contributor -- who calls himself Beagle. "As I trust my friends, I must asum (sic)... that (the e-mail you refer to) is a hoax. I would rather not learn that my friends are scoundrels who forward very personal mail to the entire world."

Beagle posted her comments.

Two hours later, another contributor declared the discussion "officially the Best MetaFilter Thread Ever." A third accused her of a "wink, wink yes it's true denial."

Three days later, Beagle received and posted another, much longer note from Garrett in which she describes her "considerable humiliation" at "the remarks, paranoid fantasies speculations, derisions (and) insults," of the MetaFilter contributors.

"I would never have written for public consumption in such a sloppy, candid, opinionated flip tone. This was never intended for your eyes," her e-mail says, going on to lament the loss of privacy in the Internet age. "I have learned a sorry lesson," she concludes, "No one can be trusted in this click-forward electronic world."

Garrett then launches into an emotional appeal to the contributors, expressing her "despair over your responses," and accusing them of being "Internet addicts" who are wasting their time energy and brainpower on an "extraordinarily silly exercise."

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"Get a life! Please," she implored them.

The netizens of the MetaFilter responded, with just as much emotion.

One accused her of "elitist disingenuinity," concluding, "I'll never read a word you write to sell to me Laurie Garrett." "Your humiliation is right and deserved. Stand by what you've written or don't write it," opined another. "You've only got yourself and your friend(s) to blame," wrote a third.

Nor did it end there, the guest book on Garrett's Web site was closed after attacks on her -- including obscenities -- were posted there by people apparently angered by her reaction. Again, Garrett will say only that she feels unable to comment because, "anything I say just makes things worse."

Not every netizen was so angry. "Oh for pete's sake, cut her some slack. She had a private email posted for all the world to see and dissect and snark on... Show some goddamn compassion," wrote one MetaFilter contributor using the name Cunninglinguist.

But even those contributors who empathized with her plight were not prepared to accept they had done anything wrong, and were clear about where they thought the responsibility lay. "I'm not sorry I read your email, but I'm sorry it was posted without your knowledge... If you're looking for somewhere to shove the 'blame' though, you may want to start closer to home," argued one.

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So where does the blame really lie? Who violated Garrett's privacy?

Garrett's friend says that none of the original recipients -- who, after all, only sent the message onto a few trusted friends and relatives -- intended to betray her trust, but acknowledges responsibility nonetheless, "forwarded mail is forwarded (again) and that is what happened, unfortunately."

One contributor to Lawmeme, a Yale Law School discussion site about law and technology, argues that the significant act was the Institute for Pyschohistory listserv posting, because it is archived on the Web. That is where the note "crossed (into) the bloodstream," wrote James Grimmelman.

Adam Davies, the IP list member who posted it there, declined to comment to UPI, beyond saying that "it was sent to me by someone, and I simply forwarded it on."

But journalist and Hugo award-winning science fiction author Bruce Sterling, who posted the note on his Web site and e-mail list -- Viridian.org -- on Feb. 19, disagrees that the transition from e-mail to the Web is the crucial moment.

Any document thought interesting enough, Sterling says, will get posted on the Web sooner or later, but that is not the significant event.

"I was sent (Garrett's Davos note) by someone in Eastern Europe ... it had already gone all round the world 10 times ... It doesn't have to go on the Web," he told UPI, recalling the so-called "Clever Trevor," and "Yours was Yum," e-mails.

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In these cases, personal e-mail messages containing graphic comments of a sexual nature -- both written by Britons, oddly enough -- sent to a small group of the sender's friends were forwarded by one or more of them, and eventually read by millions of people.

Despite being the last in a long line of people to circulate and/or post the note, Sterling does not attempt to hide behind the argument that the damage had already been done. And unlike the MetaFilter contributors, or Davies, he is prepared to acknowledge his personal responsibility.

"I have taken advantage of this woman," he declares. "I sent her e-mail to 1,800 people. She was upset and embarrassed and I regret that. I feel sorry for her.

"But I had to weigh that against the fact that (her note was) very newsworthy. She's an excellent reporter with a great eye and a great intuitive sense about how people are feeling and perceiving and she spent a week hanging out with the rulers of the world. This is important information about the future of the planet that the public needs to know. The rule of the greatest good for the greatest number demanded that it be sent out."

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Along the lines suggested by this calculus, Sterling begins his Viridian posting with a disclaimer. "This is a personal email that some treacherous pal of Ms. Garrett's leaked to the digital universe ... I would be far from thrilled if such a leakage happened to me. But this should be your moral decision, not mine. Do you want to know how badly freaked-out our planet's owners are about the general calamity that beckons, or should Ms. Garrett's tattered confidentiality be preserved? If the former, read on. If the latter, log off."

While maintaining that he would not have posted the note on the Web had been one of the original recipients, Sterling argues it is inevitable that kind of important information -- rendered more attractive yet by the insider element of what he calls "kiss and tell" -- will be disseminated so widely in the end.

"Ms. Garrett's problem is one of insufficient self esteem. She doesn't understand that -- as a Pulitzer prize winning journalist and a really good reporter with the access she had -- she cannot just write this kind of stuff to her personal friends in a personal way without it getting out.

"The permeable barrier of friendship simply can't survive that kind of osmotic pressure."

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But Sterling maintains that the same moral calculation does not hold true for all kinds of information. "I would not have done this if I thought I was doing Ms. Garrett real harm, if the e-mail (had) contained deeply personal or intimate revelations."

Not so for many of the netizens of the MetaFilter: "when she clicks on 'send', she relinquishes her right to control reproduction (and) alteration," argues one.

But, as Grimmelman points out, the consequences of accepting that we relinquish our privacy when we click the 'send' button are unpleasant to say the least. Especially because technology makes it possible to digitize anything -- audio can be mpeg-ed, even handwritten letters can be transcribed or scanned. "The problem isn't just that the Internet is leaky; the Internet makes everything leaky."

Taking what he calls the MetaFilter's "classically techno-libertarian viewpoint" to its logical conclusion, Grimmelman argues, means a world basically without privacy of any sort.

"When it comes to our fondness for speaking only into our beloved's ears, we will need to learn to let go of such sentimentality and accept that MetaFilter is listening in. Much that is now said in private will become public; the rest will never be said at all."

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As Grimmelman says, "In theory, one could go there. I can't ... I don't think that the (MetaFilter contributors) quoted above would like to live there either."

In many ways, what happened to Garrett's note is a product of a culture clash, a kind of bloggers vs. hacks celebrity smack down. At stake are two very different sets of values about information.

"One of the most striking things about the MetaFilter discussion is how it begins: 'Could this be true?'" says Richard Byrne, a reporter who writes about media issues for, among others, the alternative weekly, the Boston Phoenix.

"No professional journalist would ask that question in public like that. There's a basic checklist of procedures that would precede and obviate it."

Netizens and bloggers don't think like that. As Grimmelman writes, by the time the note hit the Web, "the original header information, along with (Garrett's) last name, had gone missing. Under those circumstances, who among us would not forward an interesting essay?"

The answer, says Byrne, is any professional journalist. "Bloggers tend to lack credibility because they're not held to any standards. The ones who are well regarded are professionals who enjoy their reputation because they bring their journalistic toolkit to the Web."

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In this case, the MetaFilter contributor called Beagle did the necessary. In journalistic parlance he "stood up" the e-mail by contacting the purported author. But it took the bloggers three days. To a journalist, Byrne points out, checking something first -- as much a matter of courtesy and efficiency as accuracy -- is second nature.

"Suppose it had been a fake written by someone who'd seen Laurie Garrett's byline from Davos, but never been there? What would have happened? A lot of people would have been wasting their time -- and doing the real Laurie Garrett a terrible injustice -- talking about a forgery when a simple check would have revealed it as such."

Sterling says he would not have circulated the e-mail unless its credibility had been established: "As a journalist, I am a funnel, not a megaphone. I am a gatekeeper. My job is precisely to find out what's true amid all the rumors, lies spin and disinformation and then report it. There's enough rubbish out there without adding to it by mindlessly echoing anything I'm told, or forwarding anything interesting looking that comes my way."

But the cultures clashing here do not just have different ideas about the value or otherwise of unsubstantiated information. They also have very different ways of thinking about integrity and the journalistic project.

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"I think perhaps one of the reasons Laurie Garrett was so upset by what happened is that she knows she did something wrong by writing that e-mail," says Byrne, "she broke source confidentiality, she violated journalistic ethics. Even though she only sent it to a few friends she crossed the bright line between private and public.

"And one of the reasons so many bloggers felt she'd over-reacted was that they didn't think she'd done anything wrong, and by their standards she hadn't."

Indeed, to the netizens -- and perhaps to the rest of us -- the thing that makes the note so interesting is precisely that Garrett does cross that line. The material she includes in her note didn't make it into any of her published dispatches -- it is a glimpse into a secret garden. She got the access that professional journalists get, and then wrote about it in a non journalistic way -- "candid, opinionated (and) flip" to use her own words, though one might more kindly say intuitive, informal and pointed.

The "Clever Trevor" e-mail was written by a man who described having a sex act performed on him by one girl, while watching soccer on TV and talking to his steady girlfriend on the telephone. It too was candid and flip, and it too offered readers a glimpse of a secret.

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Obviously the similarity very much ends there. The interest in that note is purely prurient, whereas the Davos e-mail, Sterling argues, contains material that the public has a right to know.

That right over-rides Garrett's right to privacy, he contends.

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson was in the habit of passing personal correspondence -- sometime sent to him by third parties -- to the editors of friendly newspapers for publication. Doubtless he defended these actions in very similar terms.

Perhaps the only thing that has changed since is the speed and ease with which the actions requiring such moral calculations can be made -- and the size of the audience there to witness the consequences of them.

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