Popular science blog closes after New York Times journalist threatens to blow anonymity

(Photo by Alex Torrenegra / Flickr Creative Commons)

A niche science blog that has found a devoted following has closed after the blog’s anonymous author said their identity was set to be exposed in an upcoming New York Times profile.

The writer of the blog Slate Star Codex who goes by the pseudonym “Scott Alexander” said they had recently agreed to an interview with a journalist at the newspaper who approached them about a possible news profile.

In a note on the matter published this week, Alexander wrote that the Times journalist — whom they did not name and only identified as male — told Alexander their full name would be used. When Alexander raised concerns over their safety, the reporter was dismissive, saying their hands were tied on the matter.

“Some people want to kill me or ruin my life,” Alexander wrote. “I would prefer not to make it too easy. I’ve received death threats…when I expressed these fears to the reporter, he said it was the New York Times policy to include real names, and he couldn’t change that.”

Alexander outlined a handful of examples in which aggrieved readers allegedly sought retribution. In one case, a disgruntled reader reportedly contacted the clinic where Alexander works as a psychiatrist and pretended to be an unsatisfied client in order to get them fired. That suggests some of Alexander’s audience likely figured out their identity independent of the Times’ efforts.

Responding to an inquiry from The Desk, a Times spokesperson declined to say whether the reporter consulted with an editor or anyone else at the newspaper about their naming policy, but did say the publication’s overall mission is to provide as much information as possible in news stories.

“We do not comment on what we may or may not publish in the future,” Eileen Murphy, the newspaper’s top communications executive, said. “But when we report on newsworthy figures or influential figures, our goal is always to give readers all the accurate and relevant information we can.”

In a 2017 think-piece, a Times editor wrote that the newspaper considers carefully how much information should be shared with the public concerning individuals and sources who want to remain unnamed for a number of legitimate reasons, including social stigmas and personal safety.

“It has long been standard practice in journalism not to name victims or possible victims in such cases, since fear of a public stigma can discourage survivors from reporting attacks or abuse,” Philip Corbett, the Times’ standards and ethics editor, wrote. “Besides sexual assault cases, many other stories present tough decisions — reporting about children, for instance, or people worried about their safety, or others who may be naïve about the impact publicity could have on them.”

“Few weeks go by without at least one story that gives us pause, and since no set of guidelines can cover every situation, the best we can do is to try to balance those questions of fairness and privacy with our chief goal: to tell readers what we know,” Corbett said.

Alexander confirmed their pseudonym is comprised of their real-world first and middle name, so the issue appeared to center on the inclusion of the writer’s last name — which Alexander acknowledged some readers of their blog had already managed to figure out on their own.

It wasn’t clear if the unnamed Times reporter consulted anyone at the newspaper before allegedly telling Alexander that their name would be definitively published as part of the profile. But Alexander said the Times journalist responded to their security concerns by saying, “I have enemies too.” (The reporter’s response was edited from Alexander’s note on Tuesday.)

Unable to reach a compromise with the Times journalist, Alexander opted to delete all content from the blog except for their explanatory note after finding bloggers in similar situations had done the same.

“I’m going to lie low for a while and see what happens,” Alexander wrote. “Maybe all my fears are totally overblown and nothing happens and I feel dumb.”

If that’s the case, Alexander said a backup of the blog’s original content exists and could be re-published at a later date.

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