Sunday, April 03, 2005

Bloggers of the world unite!

Don't worry, this won't be another "I can't blog" blog that would do Samuel Beckett proud. When you dive into a new medium like this, it's natural to wonder about how this all works and what's happening with it. I like to read columns about blogs to try to understand this whole concept and how it's being used. I think that this is still being figured out and that's actually a good thing because it's leading to a lot of interesting experiments before anything becomes written in stone about what a blog should be.

For anyone who's already immersed in the blogsphere (great word, eh?), David Shaw's recent L.A. Times piece Do Bloggers Deserve Basic Journalist Protections? is a bucket of cold water in the face. At first, I was pretty disturbed by his arrogance: his answer to the title was a resounding "no." Seems typical of a major newspaper to get defensive about these online upstarts. Check out these two paragraphs:

"When I or virtually any other mainstream journalist writes something, it goes through several filters before the reader sees it. At least four experienced Times editors will have examined this column, for example. They will have checked it for accuracy, fairness, grammar, taste and libel, among other things. If I'm careless - if I am guilty of what the courts call a "reckless disregard for the truth" - The Times could be sued for libel - and could lose a lot of money. With that thought - as well as our own personal and professional commitments to accuracy and fairness - very much in mind, I and my editors all try hard to be sure that what appears in the paper is just that, accurate and fair."

It seems pretty haughty and he's rightfully skewered by Jack Shafer in Don't Fear the Bloggers and later, when Shaw's paper pulls a series of boners despite the checks-and-balances he touts, he's again nailed by Shafer (Chico and the Man). But Shaw does some legit points. He goes on to use Matt Drudge as an example and rightfully says that a rumor-mongering slimebag like that does nothing to earn the same legal protection that reporters have, though Shafer points out the TV and print media don't have identical rights (not to mention that we're subject to slanted, pseudo-reporting like Fox News provides). Shaw admits out that there are also legit writers who do blogs and break news or find holes in news stories. The problem is that the earnest writers out there are then lumped in with the Drudge's and there's no middle-ground. Either they're all protected by law or they aren't, which means that they're open to libel and slander suits.

A recent lawsuit by Apple against a blog that posted company secrets would appear to be a huge defeat to the blog world but some argue that the ruling was actually more about leaking insider information than about blogs per se. Surely, there's going to be other suits that will delve into this grey area about blogs and free speech, which will have an effect on the whole medium and what's said there.

(Actually, traditional media isn't having it any easier as a recent Pennsylvannia court case ruling has gone against a newspaper who reported defamatory comments from a politician. They decided that this kind of journalism didn't fall under the "neutral reportage privilege.")

To try to separate the earnest bloggers from the sleaze merchants, the American Press Institute put together A Blogger's Code of Ethics. This includes such lofty headers as "Be Honest and Fair," "Minimize Harm" and "Be Accountable." Certainly admirable goals (even if they're not practiced by some print and TV media) but even the API admits "These are just guidelines -- in the end it is up to individual bloggers to choose their own best practices." Which means that it's a self-policing environment with no way to enforce these measures. As we see with the way that the Environmental Protection Agency has tried the same policy with polluters, this doesn't work (many employees left the EPA in Bush's first term because they were disgusted with these policies).

So what's to be done about the good bloggers out there? Should they just be resigned to their fate and hope they're never dragged into court because they've ruffled the feathers of some powerful individual or company? Should they just try to break into print media so that they don't have to worry about these problems? Even worse, will Congress (who've shown to be heavy-handed with any new technology) step in and start taking punitive measures against blogger that's deemed 'offensive'? (you know like with the FCC fines).

If there isn't any way for good bloggers to try to do sincere work with threats circling around them, then the whole blog-world is in for a grim future. Rather than taking up Shaw's solution and just leaving them all out in the wild to fend for themselves, it would be much better for a group of civic minded people to band together and make some kind of blog organization. I know that goes against the whole spontaneous, off-the-cuff amateur status of blogs but I seriously doubt that it's going to stay an unregulated, above-the-law realm for long. Bloggers of the world need to unite- they have nothing to lose but lawsuits and their inherent right to blather.


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