Topic: Science & Technology

Web Ethics: Publishing the Moronic E-Mail
(6/8/2006)

Once again, the Scoreboard must leap into the breach on the topic of cyber-ethics.

First, a brief review for latecomers or those who have lost their notes. It is an easy ethics call to condemn the practice of circulating a correspondent's private e-mail message to large numbers of people, risking the chance of worldwide embarrassment to the author should it find its way to one of the millions of blogs out there scraping the bottom of every barrel for something to post. It is almost as easy a call to condemn the practice of publishing such a circulated message on a website, when it is obvious that the author would never consented to it and did not intend the message for general consumption. Yes, once the message has become part of web-lore, its content available via Google and its maker thoroughly mortified, circulating or publishing it can hardly be called unethical. Still, the most ethical conduct, the kind thing to do, is to resist the temptation to make an already bad situation just a little bit worse.

But what is the ethical course when a blogger or website author receives an email from a reader? Is it fair to publish the e-mail on-line, complete with the writer's name, even though it was not explicitly sent for publication?

One of the Scoreboard's favorite sites, James Taranto's OpinionJournal, not only just did this, it went even further. After publishing and attributing the rambling, inarticulate, insulting e-mail critique of one of Taranto's typically conservative mini-essays, Taranto noted that the missive's author claimed to be the writer of several books. He then went to Amazon's site and found the author's own (not quite as rambling and inarticulate, but almost) reviews of a couple of them, and added those to his public evisceration of his critic.

No. This isn't fair. First of all, the Scoreboard doesn't think it is good conduct to publish any e-mail simply so others can ridicule the writing and logic, even if the writer wants his pathetic rant published. It is certainly not fair to do this when the writer did not send it for publication, and did not subsequently agree to have it published. Almost all newspapers and magazines ask for final permission before publishing letters that have been sent to the editor, though virtually all of them were sent in the hopes that they would be published. An ethical website should behave no differently. But tracking down additional embarrassing material to make an e-mail author look especially silly is too much. Taranto can claim, rightly, that anything the author put on the Amazon site is fair game to publish on OpinionJournal, unlike the e-mail itself. But he is practicing vengeful, bullying journalism. He was annoyed by the e-mail (understandably), so he set out to expose its writer as a fruitcake to as wide an audience as possible. It was not necessary to refute his "critique," for that didn't require any effort at all; nobody with an I.Q. above freezing could read this thing and think, "Egad! What a well-reasoned and expressed point of view!" Publishing the e-mail did not educate or inform, or provide Taranto with an opportunity to refute cogent arguments. All it did was provide a platform for cruel public ridicule, like the Anna Nicole Smith reality show or the reject auditions on "American Idol."

Tempting as it might be for Taranto to let everyone see the most idiotic attack e-mails he gets from the Angry Left and to identify their addled writers, the ethical response would have been either to send a polite private reply to his attacker, or ignore the message entirely. That a correspondent has consented to expose his intellectual deficits to one person cannot fairly be interpreted as leave to reveal them to the world.

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