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
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
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?