Being ‘Jon Nicosia’

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Peter Sterne

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On Saturday, Jan. 4, Mediaite’s managing editor Jon Nicosia published a confessional blog post in which he told readers that his real name is “Zachary Hildreth” and he is a convicted felon.

In his confession, Hildreth described his convictions for larceny, bank fraud, and securities fraud.

Putting his criminal past behind him required a new identity, Hildreth thought. But his success in this new life as a top editor on a successful and widely-read media-news website has attracted scrutiny over the years. That identity switch has followed him over the past several years and has brought his past back to the present.

Hildreth wrote that he disclosed his true identity to “Mediaite management,” but did not specify to whom or exactly when the disclosures took place.

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It was after Capital had spoken with seven former Mediaite employees about Hildreth’s identity over the last two weeks, but before Capital had approached Hildreth or his employers about the story or confirmed that Nicosia was in fact Zachary Hildreth, that Hildreth published his account on Mediaite, confirming himself that Jon Nicosia and Zachary Hildreth are the same person. (Capital has knowledge of at least one other publication having attempted to report this fact.)

In all, Capital has now conducted interviews with nine former employees, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. Both Hildreth and a top executive at Mediaite declined to be interviewed for this article or to comment on any of Capital’s reporting on Hildreth’s situation.

Here is what Capital has found: Eight of the nine former employees interviewed by Capital said they were unaware of Hildreth’s true identity; the ninth described rumors circulating in the company that paychecks for “Jon Nicosia” were being sent to a Zachary Hildreth, but said that Hildreth never personally disclosed his real identity to him.

All of the former employees told Capital that they had never met Hildreth in person. Two said that they mostly communicated with him through G-chat.

In many of digital media’s decentralized newsrooms, where traditional staff writers and editors mix it up with community contributors, citizen journalists and work-at-home bloggers, few would have found Hildreth’s remote work arrangements out of the ordinary, but the reasons Hildreth gave for them, according to sources, were often extraordinary—and sometimes reminiscent of lies Hildreth was accused of telling over years of court testimony and news coverage.

Five former employees said that Hildreth had told them he was a trauma surgeon who lived in the D.C. area with his boyfriend. Another one said that he told her he was a surgeon who lived in Massachusetts.

Three former staffers described Hildreth as eager to demonstrate his expertise on health matters.

“He did this thing where he gave medical advice,” one former staffer said.

“I don’t even know if he played [the part of a doctor] well,” she added. “He represented himself as a doctor, at the very least.”

Four said that they had heard about a time that a Mediaite staffer in D.C. asked to stay overnight at Hildreth’s residence and Hildreth agreed, only to cancel at the last minute. One of the four said that this happened twice.

The former staffer who remembered two occasions on which Hildreth revoked invitations to his D.C. residence at the last minute also said that Hildreth had explained that his boyfriend was involved in black ops government work, which was also why he had very little presence on the Internet.

Hildreth’s specialty at Mediaite was creating short video clips of newsworthy events that occurred on cable news shows and writing accompanying text describing what is happening in them.

In his confession, Hildreth wrote that he began uploading cable news clips in 2006, first using the Youtube account “newspoliticsnews.” The videos were a hit, especially with larger news organizations eager to capitalize on the events of the night before on cable news shows but unable to access video clips from their broadcasters and copyright owners.

In 2009, according to Gawker, News Corp sent takedown notices to Youtube and got Hildreth’s accounts shut down. He then joined Mediaite as a volunteer contributor.

In 2010, Hildreth appears to have been added to the site’s masthead, his name listed only as “Video Jon.” It is not clear when Mediaite began paying him, but he wrote in his confessional post that “when I applied to become a Mediaite employee, I had to provide my given name and social security number.”

Five former staffers told Capital that Hildreth had said he could afford to work for free because of the living he made as a surgeon.

“He said he was a doctor or a surgeon, worked at a hospital 24/7, and watched videos [while] on call,” said one former employee. “Though it was weird because he was always watching videos.”

“He said [pulling videos] was just a hobby,” another said.

“I was skeptical of his story,” one ex-staffer said, “[but] it didn’t affect his ability to pull video clips.”

“He was just the guy pulling videos,” another ex-staffer said.

“He was a guy on the Internet, and he was weird. Lots of people on the Internet are weird,” a different staffer said.

But all agreed that Hildreth was polite, agreeable, and hard-working.

In January 2012, Mediaite’s original managing editor, Colby Hall, left the site. He was replaced by Nando Di Fino.

During Di Fino’s two months on the job, The Daily Caller reported that a Mediaite blogger, Tommy Christopher, was using an assumed name for his byline.

Di Fino acknowledged and defended the use of the moniker.

"Look, this was one of the first things I learned when I got here,” Di Fino told The Daily Caller. “He’s not presenting himself on Mediaite with a different name than everywhere else, so I’m not bothered."

“My main concern here is putting out quality content that will bring people to the site,” Di Fino said.

Di Fino left the site in March. The next year, Hildreth was given his current title of managing editor. He continued to work remotely.

On Friday, the day before Hildreth published his account, Mediaite senior editor Andrew Kirell confirmed on Twitter that he had been named the site’s first-ever editor-in-chief. Hildreth kept his title as managing editor, now the second highest position on the masthead listing.

Hildreth revealed a little bit in his confessional blog post about how necessary he believed it was to adopt the false identity when he started out.

“When I started working more closely with media organizations, I adopted the name Jon Nicosia (a family name) and a new persona so that no one would know about the other me,” he wrote. “I just wanted to put that terrible part of my life behind me and to be judged for what I could do, not what I had done.”

But he described Mediaite management as having given him a second chance at life.

“[When] I applied to become a Mediaite employee, I had to provide my given name and social security number,” he wrote. “I knew that they would eventually realize who I was — which they did. Would this be the end of my media career? Would I become an outcast who no one would work with?

“At that time, I disclosed my situation to Mediaite management. After some deliberation, they judged me based on my work to that point, rather than my past,” he continued.

What exactly was so damaging about that past?

Hildreth’s story begins the late 1980s, when, in his early 20s, he founded the computer company Massdata. Hailed as a computer “whiz kid” (the shorthand description that would follow him through countless newspaper accounts) he received hundreds of thousands of dollars from investors and a flattering profile in The Boston Globe, which included the detail of his return to a five-year high-school reunion in a fancy car with a supermodel on his arm.

In 1988, though, the same newspaper reported that Hildreth had lied to his investors in order to keep the company afloat. According to the Globe, Hildreth told them that he was due a multimillion dollar inheritance and that Massdata had signed contracts with large companies such as the defense contractor Raytheon, but he actually had no inheritance and had forged the contract agreements.

The AP reported that after creditors seized Massdata’s assets, Hildreth and his mother fled to New Hampshire, where, according to accounts in the Globe and the Associated Press, they attempted to commit suicide.

In 1989, according to the Globe, Hildreth was convicted on 46 separate counts of “larceny, obtaining a signature with intent to defraud, and accepting a note under false pretense” and sentenced to 12–15 years in state prison. His lawyers appealed the decision, arguing (among other things) that the jury should have been allowed to consider an insanity defense.

Hildreth next made news in 1992, when the Globe reported that he had bribed a guard to smuggle a personal computer into his minimum-security prison. The guard was fired and Hildreth was transferred to a different prison.

After five years in prison, he was released, only to be convicted of larceny again a few years later and sentenced to three more years in prison.

“Prison had crushed my spirit and destroyed the life I knew. When I was released, I focused on trying to get those five years back — with all the trappings of success I felt I had earned,” he wrote in his confession. “That also meant not caring about the people I hurt to get what I wanted. Despite five years behind bars, I hadn’t learned my lesson.”

In 2005, after being released from prison a second time, Hildreth accused his boyfriend, Joseph Kalinowski, of assault.

According to the local Massachusetts paper The Patriot-Ledger, Hildreth accused Kalinowski of attacking him with a shard of broken glass. Kalinowski maintained that he only acted in self-defense, after Hildreth had broken into his house and tried to strangle him. A jury acquitted Kalinowski in December 2006.

But it was a little more than a year later that Kalinowski, himself a doctor, could get his medical license back, The Patriot-Ledger reported. It had been suspended when charges were brought against Kalinowski.

After the trial, Kalinowski’s lawyer, Jack Atwood, told The Weymouth News that Hildreth had lied to his client about his name and career.

“He introduced himself as Dr. Aaron Schnieder at a party attended by medical employees,” Atwood told the paper.

“He presented himself to Dr. Kalinowski and several of his friends that he was an Iraq war veteran and a trauma surgeon,” he added.

Citing court documents, the Massachusetts LGBT publication Bay Windows reported that a number of Kalinowski’s acquaintances and friends, including a political reporter and a state senator, had testified that Hildreth had represented himself as a trauma surgeon.

Hildreth has denied this accusation; but if it is true, it's the last shadow cast over Hildreth's former life onto his current one as Jon Nicosia.

With Saturday’s admission, it is finally, presumably, dispelled.