Anonymity Sucks

Posted August 7, 2008 in Feature Story

July 19 was a memorable day for many residents of Claremont, who woke up that Saturday to discover the Los Angeles Times had finally managed to locate the town on a map.  

America’s second-largest newspaper ran a front-page article that morning about a bizarre encounter that occurred in Claremont three months earlier between a group of local Girl Scouts and Ellen Taylor, then deputy mayor of the city and today the mayor. According to staff writer David Pierson, the incident began when Taylor demanded the Scouts, who had set up a cookie sale at a street corner a few feet from Taylor’s husband’s law office at Indian Hill Boulevard and Second Street, to move elsewhere. The girls refused, the police were called, and suddenly the deputy mayor of Claremont had a major PR problem on her hands. 

Pierson wrote in breathless detail how the story of the incident was broken by the Claremont Insider, which Pierson described as a “popular blog in town known for gossipy items and sharp jabs at local politicians.” 

The tale wrapped up with Taylor publicly apologizing for the episode.

The article, the first sentence of which referred to Taylor as the “Claremont Cookie Monster,” was an instant media sensation. For more than a week after its publication, Pierson’s article was listed among the top five “most read” and “most emailed” stories on the Times website, and was picked up by newspapers and blogs across the country. In Claremont, it galvanized Taylor’s supporters and enemies like nothing else, resurrecting—again, the incident was three months in the past by July 19—what had become in many residents’ minds a dead issue. And it represented a major coup for the Claremont Insider, which until Pierson’s article was little known outside the college community. 

But there were a few problems with the article, the most minor of which being it contained numerous factual errors. The biggest problem with it is what Pierson didn’t write: He ignored the very real possibility that, while Taylor’s run-in with the Scouts certainly happened, the creature known as the “Claremont Cookie Monster” is at its Scout-hating heart a creation of an anonymous blog—the Claremont Insider.

Do reporters have an obligation to pay extra attention to the motivations of the anonymous blogs they cover? And, while we’re on the subject of obligations:  Just what ethical responsibilities, if any, do anonymous blogs bear themselves—particularly entities as prone to rumor mongering and innuendo as the anonymous site Pierson promoted to national prominence?  

The Claremont Insider first materialized on the web on May 8, 2005, stuck around long enough to call the city’s mayors “power-drunk fools” and the League of Women Voters “a toothless, impotent, aging organization,” and then quietly dematerialized on May 16. It appeared again in February 2007, just in time for the City Council elections in March. The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin newspaper noted the resurrection in a blurb headlined “Campaign blog resurfaces” and observing the blog’s “main targets” were council candidates (and now council members) Sam Pedroza and Linda Elderkin. The Insider’s sole blogger at the time—an anonymous entity named Claremont Buzz—objected to both characterizations.

“The Bulletin calls this a ‘Campaign Blog,’“ Buzz wrote. “It’s not. We just happened to start back up in the midst of an election that is sucking the air out of most other issues. When we started in May 2005, there was no election. We are just tired of an absurd situation where this Claremont 400 group thinks it can control this town and ignore everyone else.”

Central to the Insider’s view of Claremont is the idea the city is run by a cabal of power brokers known as the Claremont 400. In post after post, Buzz hammers away at the idea that the average resident is powerless in the face of this monolith, which is made up of Taylor, Pedroza, Elderkin, and high-placed members of the Claremont Community Foundation, the Rotary Club, the Claremont Colleges, the Claremont United Church of Christ, and, of course, the League of Women Voters. The Insider is particularly wary of the League, placing it somewhere near the dark center of the cabal’s soul. 

The notion of a shadow government pulling the civic strings serves two purposes: It’s virtually impossible to disprove and it engenders an “us versus the elite” way of looking at city politics.

“This concept of a Claremont 400 has been a way to designate anyone involved in the community as holding all the power,” says Pedroza, who, next to Taylor and the League, has been the Insider’s biggest boogeyman. “I’m sure if you look at any city, you’ll find people who are more involved in their community than others. But what these bloggers do is point to these people, call them the 400, and if something doesn’t go the way the bloggers want, say, ‘Oh, that’s just the 400. Either you’re part of the 400, or you’re one of us.’“

But, says Pedroza, the primary mission of the Insider isn’t really about bringing down the 400. It’s about influencing elections. 

“The blog fanned the flames of the Girl Scout/Taylor issue, and it’s no coincidence that Taylor happens to be up for reelection,” he says. “(Claremont Buzz) is just on her every day—even criticizing what she picks for yard ornaments—just as he was on me when I was running for office. I have no doubt I’m going to be a major target again when I’m up for reelection.”

Taylor’s council term is up in March. But if the Insider was thinking of elections when it raised hell over the Scouts episode, it was probably looking at a much closer election—that of who would be the city’s new mayor. Every year, the five-member council votes on who among its ranks will serve the next one-year term as mayor and mayor pro tem—this year, the vote took place on March 25. Traditionally, the council rotates the position: the senior council member is made mayor pro tem, then mayor the following year. But the council bucked tradition last year, voting to reelect Mayor Peter Yao to a second term. That move, which the Insider promptly blamed on the machinations of the Claremont 400, effectively kept Councilman Corey Calaycay—the Insider’s preferred candidate—out of the mayor pro tem spot, and thus, out of contention for the mayor’s seat this year. 

In the weeks prior to Taylor’s run-in with the Girl Scouts, the Insider had become obsessed with the question of who would attain the largely ceremonial title of mayor, repeatedly referring to the upcoming rotation and bemoaning last year’s Calaycay snub.

“331 days have passed since Yao was re-elected to the Claremont City Council on March 6, 2007,” Buzz penned in February in a post titled “Hostage Crisis: Day 332.” That post was followed by an image of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum with Taylor and Yao’s faces superimposed on the fat twins. Another post read: “Look for more silly council behavior in April, when Queen Ellen succeeds current Mayor Peter Yao.”

And then the Girl Scout incident happened, and the Insider swooped. 

Despite Times staffer Pierson’s claim that the Insider broke the story, it was Tony Krickl of the Claremont Courier newspaper who first wrote of the March 14 incident in a short article the following day.

“Ms. Taylor first asked if the group (of Girl Scouts) had a permit from the city to operate at the location, announced that she was the deputy Mayor of Claremont and threatened to call the police if the Girl Scouts did not cease operations, Ms. Garvin said. She also expressed her feelings that the location was not safe,” Krickl wrote, adding four paragraphs down: 

“Ms. Taylor did in fact call the police in order to get advice about what should be done. Claremont Police Lieutenant Jon Traber agreed that heavy traffic at the location and the time of day was a cause for concern and offered to send a patrol officer, Ms. Taylor said. Not wanting a confrontation with police, the women decided to leave the location, taking with them their girls, cookies and a sour taste in their mouths.”

That’s it. That’s the story that sent the Insider into paroxysms of outrage. 

“I looked outside of my office and saw the Scouts bouncing up and down distracting drivers,” Taylor says. “I felt it was an unsafe situation, so I asked the Girl Scout leader how they happened to end up on this corner. I’ve been at this location for 20 years—it’s not a particularly safe corner. The Scouts were not particularly amenable, so I said, ‘I’m going to call the police, and if they agree with me, fine. If not, fine. There was no more story other than this.”

Just as an aside, on July 20—the day after the Times ran its Cookie Monster story—an elderly driver leaving a parking lot at the northeast corner of Indian Hills Boulevard and Second Street—the exact spot where the Scouts had set up shop three months earlier—drove over an embankment and onto the sidewalk, says Claremont Police Capt. Gary Jenkins. A farmer’s market was underway that Sunday, and the driver narrowly missed hitting two shoppers. 

But back to March 15, when the Insider fired its first salvo at Taylor over the cookie incident. Referencing Krickl’s article, Claremont Buzz accused Taylor of treating the Police Department like “her own private security firm” and “lying” about her concerns for the girls’ safety, accused her of being “pro-jailing” of children, and tossed in some vague rumors of her mistreating neighbors and violating city code for good measure. 

“Taylor’s truest self was exposed in her actions Friday with that group of Girl Scouts,” Buzz wrote.

Subsequent posts, some illustrated with Photo-shopped images of Taylor’s face on the bodies of Wonder Woman and Queen Elizabeth II, hammered away at a common theme: “Queen Ellen” hates Girl Scouts, so “Queen Ellen” must not be mayor.

“The issue at hand is this business of ‘it’s Ellen’s turn to be Mayor,’ Buzz wrote four days before the mayoral vote. “Why exactly is that? Doesn’t Taylor’s rabid eagerness to lord her ‘Deputy Mayor’ position over a group of Girl Scouts like some playground bully speak volumes about her abuse of even the most minor official title?”

Nonetheless, on March 25, the council elected Taylor as the city’s new mayor and Calaycay as mayor pro tem. The Insider’s attacks on Taylor the Cookie Monster began tapering off.

This is the kind of nonsense Claremont council members—some council members—had been dealing with for 17 months when the Times Pierson arrived to write his story. Here at last was a professional mainstream journalist with the reach and credibility to set the record straight. And what did he do?

After starting his front-page piece by calling Taylor “the Claremont Cookie Monster,” he erroneously credited the Insider with breaking the Scout story, then went on to state that readers of the blog “responded with their own comments, the vast majority siding with the Girl Scouts.”

That last statement is actually three statements in one: that the Insider had received a vast number of comments; that the majority of this vast number “sided” with the Girl Scouts; and that, somewhere in the city of Claremont, was a line, with Taylor on one side and the Girl Scouts on the other. All three are based on assumptions, and shaky ones at that. 

After scouring the Insider’s site, we at the Weekly found several reader comments opposing Taylor on the Scout issue—most lifted directly from other publications, like the Courier. But only a handful were supposedly written directly to the Insider, and all but one of those were unsigned. Anyone could have written those comments. Claremont Buzz could have written them. Corey Calaycay could have written them. For all we know, Pierson himself could have written them. 

And it may be that a majority of Claremont Scouts now view Taylor as their enemy on the other side of the line. But that line was blurry enough for a group of Girl Scouts to show up the March 25 council meeting—when Taylor was elected mayor—and hand out cookies. 

Pierson then helpfully brought up the council’s recent passage of a solicitation ordinance, under which commercial door-to-door solicitors must first get a permit from the city and undergo criminal background checks. While acknowledging the ordinance had nothing to do with the March 14 Scout incident—it had been in the works for years following two rapes by magazine salesmen—he wrote that its proximity to that event (the law was introduced April 22) caused some people to feel that it was aimed at the Scouts. Fair enough. But why would Pierson help further that false belief by stating, “the ordinance specifically cited Girl Scouts, among others, as nonprofit organizations that would need to apply for a permit if they go door-to-door”?

It does? We’ve got a copy of that ordinance, all 19 pages of it, and nowhere are the Girl Scouts mentioned. Not specifically. Not even obliquely. Which raises the question: Just where did Pierson get the idea that it did? We certainly hope not from the Insider, which ran several “reader comments” suggesting a link between the Scout incident and the solicitation ordinance. 

Pierson didn’t respond to an emailed list of questions from the Weekly regarding his article. Neither did Times city editor Shelby Grad. 

“If the newspaper relied on the account of the events as presented by the Insider, that reliance on an anonymous blog would be very problematic ethically and journalistically,” says Dr. Bob Steele, journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute and a Pulliam distinguished professor of journalism at DePauw University in Indiana. “If a journalist is using a blog as a source of a story, the journalist still has an obligation for verification of information, and an obligation to at least consider the motivation of the source. A journalist’s obligation in this era of the blogosphere is to help make sense in stories, not to merely pass along rumors and innuendo”

Through email exchange, blogger Claremont Buzz replied to several questions regarding the Insider’s coverage of the Scout story. In response to the question of how the Insider determined what actually transpired during the Scout episode, Buzz wrote:

“We aren’t set up to be journalists, we just went by what the Courier reported.   We’ve seen enough of Taylor over the years—she’s been on the Traffic & Transportation Commission, been a past president of the Claremont Chamber of Commerce, a past president of the League of Women Voters of the Claremont Area—to know that the behavior attributed to her by the Girls Scouts and their leaders is more than plausible.”

But Steele points out that bloggers, even anonymous bloggers, have certain obligations, too.

“There are ethical responsibilities when someone stands on a street corner and hurls accusations at other people,” he says. “A blogger has a cyber megaphone that can reach quite far, quite quickly, and the exponential harm can be considerable. Even if this blogger says, ‘I’m not a journalist,’ there is an ethical responsibility in the way she or he using that cyber megaphone.”  



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