Bob Wakeham: Pseudonyms: use sparingly

Bob Wakeham bwakeham@nl.rogers.com
Published on March 26, 2016
Bob Wakeham

The first time I heard the word pseudonym was way back in the ’50s and early ’60s, when my father was forced to create an artificial byline in order to keep writing for The Evening Telegram.

Being a youngster, I’m sure I had not a clue what pseudonym meant, or what the implications of the word were, although I heard it mentioned fairly regularly by adults in our Gander home whenever conversation turned to Dad’s work as a freelance writer and photographer for The Telegram; but, in the sharing of Wakeham family anecdotes in the years since, it has always had a certain significance, even a laugh, a slice of Gander life.

And, as it turned out, my father’s experience back then also provided me with a legitimate example of why, at times, pseudonyms are necessary.     

Flashback to the 1950s, and a story with a fairly innocuous start: an Air France flight was involved in a relatively minor accident at Gander Airport, skidding off the runway after landing. My father, an employee of Trans World Airlines, was off shift at the time, but received a tip from a buddy at the airport and then drove the five minutes to the terminal, collected his facts, took a picture of the Air France plane still in a ditch, and had his package of journalism dispatched to St. John’s for the next day’s edition of The Evening Telegram.  

Regrettably for Dad, an international news service picked up the story — a development that pleased neither Air France nor TWA. Air France because of what it considered to be bad publicity generated by one of its competitor’s staff, and TWA because of what it felt were inappropriate and embarrassing activities by an employee.  

And TWA was adamant: if Dad had decided that journalism was now his calling, that he would prefer to interview movie stars at the Big Dipper as they had a few drinks while waiting for their planes to re-fuel at Gander, and to cover senior hockey games, then he had better put in his resignation with the airline.

In this day and age, in this century of human rights tribunals, when it’s possible to holler for your right to spit on the sidewalk, Dad might have fought the TWA edict; back then, though, he had few, if any, options.

But Newfoundland ingenuity kicked in, and Dad and Steve Herder, then the publisher of The Evening Telegram, concocted a plan: Dad would continue to be the paper’s correspondent in Gander, but would file stories under a pseudonym, an invented byline, one Chris Inaway. (I don’t know about the derivation of “Chris” but the genesis of “Inaway” was a response Dad used frequently when asked a question that required his opinion: “Well, in a way.” )

My father was never caught in his clandestine reportorial role and was able to continue for the next few years to cobble together a few bucks for his items and pictures to supplement his main salary at TWA.

But it had obviously been a matter of practicality and principle, and the use of a pseudonym was unarguably required.  

Nowadays, though, pseudonyms are ubiquitous, as readers, listeners and viewers of journalism take advantage of online technology to react to stories, with many of them attaching a phony identification to their comments.

And journalistic organizations, forced to tolerate more and more unsavoury commentary (the nasty stuff ranges from racist and misogynistic to sick and twisted, and even libellous), are now debating how to handle online commentary, with the CBC, for instance, recently deciding to eliminate any responses submitted by people using pseudonyms.

And that has obviously raised the hackles of those who wish to remain anonymous in the world of feedback.

Whenever I’ve had the chance throughout my career to offer my views to my bosses on letters to the editor or reaction to radio and television stories, or when I’ve had authority over such matters myself, I’ve always argued that anonymity should be permitted on only the rarest of occasions. As I’ve mentioned here in this Saturday slot once before, I reinstated viewer feedback at “Here and Now” in the early ’90s with the proviso that pseudonyms were not to be accepted, no use of “Poisoned in Petites” or “Enraged in Englee” or “Delighted in Dover.” We did sometimes allow individuals to protect their identity if we were convinced there could be serious repercussions for the writer.

It seems to me, as I watch and read the exchange of ideas taking place about the use of pseudonyms, that many of the proponents of this approach to commentary sections in the media are using as a convenient excuse the argument that there might be dramatic consequences if their identities were to be revealed.

If you read enough online commentary, you’d have to conclude that many, many writers are using pseudonyms simply to spew vitriol and not have to stand behind their opinions.

I receive plenty of feedback to this Saturday column, much of it on the phone or face to face when I’m out and about. But there’s quite a bit of response online, as well, some of it submitted anonymously — a cop-out, in my view.

More times than not, I ignore online reaction when I spot a pseudonym. If someone attaches what appears to be a legitimate identification (even then, I guess, there can be some dishonesty), I read it, whether it’s a tongue-lashing or a slap on the back.

In a broader context, though, a context outside of my little world at The Telegram, I think the national CBC deserves praise for eliminating anonymous or pseudonymous commentary, and I hope other news-gathering agencies follow suit.

Although I hope some method, even if expensive and labour-intensive, can be found to determine whether a writer has a bonafide case to remain anonymous.

As Chris Inaway had.

 

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.­