Game, Set, PWNED

Seattle Times editorial page editor Ryan Blethen thinks it’s cute to remind all us kids out here how it works in the NBA:

Journalists have the right to write pointed critiques or damaging
stories. This is never done lightly and must be backed up with fact.
What we do can alter somebody’s life for better or worse. Almost every
professional journalist is careful not to abuse this right of free

There is nothing wrong with pushing the limits of the First
Amendment, but there is a line where free speech can go too far and
real damage is done. Bloggers are writing past this line and finding
themselves in trouble.

The common refrain from bloggers is that they have a right to say
what they want, especially if it is their opinion. Whatever that
opinion is, it needs to be grounded in fact. If it is not then the
writer runs the risk of being sued for libel, which is a false
statement that damages a person’s reputation.

To which Romenesko’s commenters call bullshit:

George Will is a certified obfuscator and
liar on the issues of campaign finance and global warming, to name just
one example of a professional opinion journalist I’ll bet appears
regularly on Mr. Blethen’s page. Professional journalist Marc Ambinder
of The Atlantic just took a well-earned shellacking from bloggers Marcy
Wheeler and Glenn Greenwald for asserting that it was reasonable to
overlook liberal criticism of the run-up to the Iraq war because it
came from “Bush-haters.” Talk about “over the top” conclusions and
“poor word choice,” not to mention armchair psychoanalysis of people
the writer never met based entirely on their B+ in Psychology 101. I
assumed that most editorial page editors knew that unsupported
generalizations are lazy writing; I pity Mr. Blethen’s charges, who
apparently are learning nothing under him.

Blethen’s examples are some asshole celebrity blogger and Hal Turner. Those are our cautionary tales, like, thanks Chipper, until you mentioned it I was totally going to model all my future work on Perez Hilton and end every post with Heil Hitler. Whew. Dodged that bullet there.

It is a big Internet. Surely you can find better examples of all those irresponsible bloggity people than that. I mean, if we’re so crazy with the unsourced reporting and whatnot, it shouldn’t be so hard to find many, many ways in which we’re all violating the Baby Journalism Jesus.

Joining in the wanking, Lucy Dalglish:

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for
Freedom of the Press, said she is receiving more and more calls from

“They don’t seem to understand that if you are going to spout off, that spouting off has consequences,” she said.

The average blogger doesn’t have the same understanding as trained
journalists do of the difference between fact and opinion and the use
of “red flag words.”

“As more citizens are out there blogging away many of them don’t have a grasp of what the law is,” Dalglish said.

Of COURSE she’s going to get more and more calls from bloggers. This is a new medium. People are trying it out. Some will act stupid and get their asses sued. Others won’t. This is how it’s supposed to work. It’s not a sign of the apocalypse. Chill.

The common refrain from bloggers is that they have a right to say what
they want, especially if it is their opinion. Whatever that opinion is,
it needs to be grounded in fact. If it is not then the writer runs the
risk of being sued for libel, which is a false statement that damages a
person’s reputation.

Or they’ll just be given a column at a major metro daily.

From whence does that refrain of “I can say what I want” come? Blethen doesn’t tell us. Andlibel isn’t that simple, which is why lawyers make the big bucks:

Libel and slander are legal claims for false statements of fact
about a person that are printed, broadcast, spoken or otherwise
communicated to others. Libel generally refers to statements or visual
depictions in written or other permanent form, while slander refers to
verbal statements and gestures. The term defamation is often used to
encompass both libel and slander.

In order for the person about whom a statement is made to recover
for libel, the false statement must be defamatory, meaning that it
actually harms the reputation of the other person, as opposed to being
merely insulting or offensive.

The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must also have been
published to at least one other person (other than the subject of the
statement) and must be “of and concerning” the plaintiff. That is,
those hearing or reading the statement must identify it specifically
with the plaintiff.

The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must also be a false
statement of fact. That which is name-calling, hyperbole, or, however
characterized, cannot be proven true or false, cannot be the subject of
a libel or slander claim.

The defamatory statement must also have been made with fault. The
extent of the fault depends primarily on the status of the plaintiff.
Public figures, such as government officials, celebrities, well-known
individuals, and people involved in specific public controversies, are
required to prove actual malice, a legal term which means the defendant
knew his statement was false or recklessly disregarded the truth or
falsity of his statement. In most jurisdictions, private individuals
must show only that the defendant was negligent: that he failed to act
with due care in the situation.

A defamation claim — at least one based upon statements about
issues that are matters of public interest — will likely fail if any
of these elements are not met.

Facts. Extremely annoying.

If bloggers don’t learn to check themselves, and use a modicum of
restraint, then not only will people get hurt but free speech could be
irreparably damaged.

How, exactly, would such checking take place? How would Blethen know we’ve all “checked” ourselves? Should we submit reports? To whom? Would we have the Internet police? Could Ryan Blethen personally edit all of Blogspot? Can we appoint a Blog Czar who could take our Boy Wonder badges away if we said somethign mean? And could Ryan Blethen please point out for me the ways in which such restraint is currently enforced across all traditional media outlets? He might want to start with CNN and work his way up to Fox and talk radio gradually. We don’t want to frighten the poor innocent thing.

What damage might be done to free speech by a small minority of bloggers being idiots (if indeed such examples exist; they seemed impossible for Blethen to find)? Hal Turner’s a professional asshole, that means we should chuck the Constitution and replace it with the I Heart Fascism brochure? I don’t get the Clash of Civilizations urgency here. Maybe it’s just me. I probably need to check myself and use a modicum of restraint.


ps. Still? Seriously? Is it 2003 and nobody told me to set my clock back?

8 thoughts on “Game, Set, PWNED

  1. When I read Blethen’s piece yesterday a headache built-up with each succeeding sentence. When I reached Dalglish’s name I had to click away lest I have a full-blown migraine.

  2. The just drives me nuts. Why are they focusing on bloggers? Because they don’t want to look at Cable and Talk radio. Because those are protected mediums whose excesses earn them money instead of become a massive liability to their management.
    I did a post today titled
    Talk Radio Hosts are NOT Journalists
    The have all the protection of a McClatchy Reporter, but none of the responsibility. Their media corporation protects them because they believe that by protecting them they are extending the freedom of the press not simple protecting thugs and bullies with microphones.
    Please read my post. I don’t want to repeat myself here.
    Here is another area that the mainstream media look away from, the use of the talk radio as a massive free ad for the Republican party. As I was reading FEC regulations for electioneering I see that the talk radio sales by as a press entity and therefore the candidates don’t have even acknowledge the benefit of their constant exposure. 20-30 minute infomercials on a station SHOULD be seen as a corporate donation, but according to my reading of the rules, they are giving the “press exemption”. I couldn’t figure out any way that they could even violate the rules! The rules are so lax in favor of right-wing radio. Now this can be seen as a good thing since bloggers are covered as well, but again an asymmetric power problem. Talk radio, always on, public license, you don’t have to read or even have a expensive computer to have access too.
    I doubt anyone out there in the media wants to work with me on this issue, determining when talk radio is NOT a press entity, because they would rather look at bloggers who they feel more fear.

  3. “Talk Radio Hosts”? Hell, as the Romanesko commenter pointed out, there is absolutely no fact checking done on the editorial pagewhatsoever. The editorial page people at theOregonian (which has a larger circulation than theTimes) have repeatedly told me that there’s no need to fact check anything on those pages because it’s opinion. No matter that they’re the ones making the decisions about which of the un-fact-checked lies to propogate.

  4. And the other thing is, anyone can sue anyone else for libel, even if what was written was true and pure as the driven snow. It’s a tactic that was used against me once, and threatened so many times I can’t even remember. The suit was dropped, of course, because it was just bluster–and because another reporter heard the plaintive tell me in the courthouse hallway he’d drop the suit if I agreed to editorialize in favor of another one of his hobby horses and then printed the story.
    If lying about stuff in general was grounds for libel, every right wing columnist in the country would be in the slammer. Libel’s not so cut and dried as some would like to think, which means bloggers ought to do a little reading on the topic if they plan to take on the local poobah or his minions and learn why that’s both less and more fraught than writing nasty comments about their next door neighbor.

  5. Wait…I took Media Law in J school and I seem to remember that opinion WAS protected from libel suits. As long as you say “Just my opinion, but I think Ryan Blethen licks toilet seats and uses pubic hair for dental floss,” you’re pretty safe. Particularly when you show that picture of Ryan licking the toilet seat.

  6. Actually, Mothra, speaking as a lawyer (and I just took yet another Bar exam, so I just studied this crap), I think your example might be a little risky. Using the magic words “just my opinion” doesn’t automatically convert a statement of assertive fact (even if false) into permissible, nondefamatory speech. If you said, “Just my opinion, but I think Ryan Blethen is a hack and a lying weasel,” that’s probably okay because it describes behavior rather than specific acts … acts like licking toilet seats and flossing with pubes. It’s a fine line, but it’s a line nonetheless.
    Of course, to carry the example to its absurd extreme, as the passage A. quoted above somewhat inadequately states, Blethen as a “public figure”still would have to prove that you acted with “actual malice” when accusing him of the aforementioned hygienic idiosyncrasies. “Actual malice” is more than just “I hate that fucker.” It means youactually had the intent of destroying his character or reputation and causing himactual economic injury (such as the loss of a job).
    Because both “actual malice” and the existence of injury are virtually impossible to prove in an example like this, or indeed like 99.99% of bloggers are doing, all of these “bloggers are evil and ought to be sued” characters need a nice, hot cup of shut the fuck up.
    (See, Mom, that law school edumacationwas worthwhile after all!)

  7. If bloggers don’t learn to check themselves, and use a modicum of restraint, then not only will people get hurt but free speech could be irreparably damaged.
    Ifreporters and members of the mass media don’t learn to check themselves, and use a modicum of restraint, then not only will people get hurt but free speech could be irreparably damaged.
    Fixed for power to influence and audience size. Hyperbole removed.

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