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Should journalists lose their naming rights online?

For political junkies in need of a fix, ColoradoPols.com is a spike to the vein. The site is a popular online rendezvous spot where folks interested in dishing about campaigns can mingle with insiders whose candor is enhanced by anonymity.

As is typical on blogs, most ColoradoPols users post under assumed names -- and some do so frequently. On March 29, someone employing the pseudonym Voyageur weighed in eight times in three hours, spilling more than 1,200 words amid a debate that got a trifle nasty, albeit in a notably erudite way. At one juncture, Voyageur responded to a poster known as Beaupreznit by writing, "I shall continue to call you stupid, because no intelligent person who actually read my post could have failed to understand it. To impugn my honor is in no way civil, and I will not forgive or forget unless you apologize."

Spats like this one would be even more fun for Internet voyeurs if the combatants were identified, and individuals known to Westword recently presented information suggesting that Voyageur is actually Bob Ewegen, deputy editorial-page editor of the Denver Post. Their alleged proof isn't indisputable, since Voyageur's IP, or Internet Protocol, address (a series of digits that serve as a kind of computer fingerprint) confirms only that he or she logged on from a device under the auspices of the Denver Newspaper Agency. Thanks to the way the DNA's system is set up, IP addresses can't be used to trace specific individuals posting from the dailies' offices. But if the Ewegen-Voyageur connection is real, this alter ego raises a slew of questions. For instance: Should an editorial employee spend hours on the job writing for a site that's not affiliated with the Post when he could be doing so for one of the paper's own blogs, accessible at DenverPostBloghouse.com? Doesn't the use of a pseudonym present an unnecessary temptation to amateur detectives, who may believe that exposing someone like Ewegen would further their agenda? And is a writer wrong to share some opinions as himself and others while wearing a cyber-disguise?

In this case, no definitive conclusions can be reached, since Ewegen neither confirms nor denies that he's Voyageur -- and he refuses to elaborate until the sources drop their cloak of anonymity. "Hiding behind the veil of secrecy is hypocrisy to the nth degree," he says, "and until my accuser comes forward, I'll treat it with the contempt it deserves." But Ewegen grants that he generally checks ColoradoPols "once or twice a day" and concedes that "I have posted there under my own name -- that's demonstrable -- and probably otherwise."

Ewegen's comments come at a time when media organizations are grappling with the phenomenon of journalists who post on blogs or other sites under fictitious monikers. The issue generated headlines in late April after the Los Angeles Times stripped 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Hiltzik of a column and affiliated blog. According to the Times, Hiltzik was punished after admitting he'd used "pseudonyms to post a single comment on his blog on latimes.com and multiple comments elsewhere on the Web that dealt with his column and other issues involving the newspaper."

In contrast, Ewegen's never blogged on a Post site under another handle, and he's certain he's never broken any of his newspaper's regulations about pseudonyms. After all, he notes, "We have no policy that says you can't do it."

He's right -- for now. After a lengthy process, the Post adopted ethics guidelines in early 2004. But editorial-page editor Jonathan Wolman, Ewegen's immediate superior, confirms that the paper doesn't have separate dictates regarding posting by employees. Likewise, provisions that deal with conflicts of interest and freelancing can't be easily applied to blogs. The Hiltzik episode "reminds us that the staff deserves real clarity in the ethics policy about blogging," Wolman says.

Gary Clark, the Post's managing editor, agrees with this premise. In an e-mail, he writes that he and Post editor Greg Moore have discussed the need for blog-specific tenets, and he offers a few hints about their potential focus: "As far as writing under a pseudonym, I think the need would certainly be diminished for those journalists who are ethical and who understand that honesty is critical to our mission of serving the public."

ColoradoPols' Jason Bane doesn't buy that. He has a political and journalistic background, but he's also a blogger who's as comfortable using noms de plume as he is when posting under his own name for 5280 magazine. In his view, "I don't know why, if your profession is as a reporter, as opposed to being a doctor or a waiter, you give up your right to anonymously post on a blog." He emphasizes that the organizers behind ColoradoPols have no interest in "tracking who someone might really be," and he regards attempts to unmask people as "a witch hunt."

Bane has a good reason for his feelings on this topic. From the moment ColoradoPols was launched in late 2004, he tried to keep his participation a secret, but he was outed by the Rocky Mountain News in July 2005. Then, in December, the Rocky revealed that Laura Teal, currently the political director for Republican gubernatorial hopeful Marc Holtzman, passed along IP figures about ColoradoPols users to a friend, Andy George, who compiled the data on a spreadsheet. Less than a week later, Governor Bill Owens ordered state employees not to place anonymous posts on political sites after the Rocky notified him that some acerbic remarks on ColoradoPols had been traced to his office. Ewegen guesses that he, too, wound up on George's roster and credits Teal "or whoever she passed it on to" for publicizing his visits. For her part, Teal says she had nothing to do with fingering Ewegen, and she defends the rights of people from all walks of life to post online under whatever name they choose.

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