Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Bloggers ... Protected or Not?

Apple is suing several bloggers for releasing product information on sites that are pretty much know for fostering Apple rumors and secrets. Apple isn't suing them for publishing trade secrets but for refusing to reveal their sources -- the sources of a couple of rumors that ended up accurate and damaging. Those who run the sites, thinksecret.com, appleinsider.com, and PowerPage.org, say that as bloggers, they are journalists, and shouldn't have to disclose their sources. The case which seems simple at first begins to drill into the very nature of journalistic reporting, the first being: Are bloggers protected as journalists? If they report what they know, should they be afforded the same rights as journalists? Can they be made to reveal their sources? Are they protected under the First Amendment?

What do you attribute? How do you handle anonymous sources? How do you disclose sources while protecting them and your credibility at the same time? To many trained journalists, these questions are second nature. For many bloggers they are not. But where and how do you draw the line between "legitimate" bloggers and those who follow no rules? How do you draw a distinction between someone who blogs and someone who writes for the New York Times. Or more specifically, is a blogger who runs a legitimate news site with 100,000 hits a day and reports from direct sources less legitimate than a small town editor who cobbles together stories from the wire and has a circulation of 10,000?

Legal experts in states with privilege statutes are watching this case closely. Some believe that the California judge may try to keep the decision as narrow as possible. Others believe it will result in a series of tests for bloggers with the court deciding if what they write and how they write it makes them protected. But many legal experts feel there's a problem if the courts create this distinction. Bloggers have begun to fulfill a role in questioning the mainstream press and some advocates don't want this squashed.

The lines between news and commentary don't apply in many cases. The lines between direct and secondary reporting are blurred. Print versus online makes no difference. With each question there are more questions. There could be a decision as early as the end of this week.


At Tue Mar 08, 09:30:00 AM, Blogger Erudite Redneck said...

Here's my take on some of this, and it has remained consistent my entire career.

1. The First Amendment's free-press rights do not apply to me as the employee of someone who owns a press. They apply to the owners of the press. The First Amendment's free-speech provisions apply to me, but only to (hopefully) prevent prior restraint. I have no protection from the consequences of what I say, or write. In my state, my employer could fire me for writing or saying something it didn't like. Or, just because. ... Ergo, free-press rights belong to the owners of the servers that publish the blogs, and their assigns, not necessarily to individual bloggers.

2. Absent a statutory "shield" law, the "protection" that a journalist, or blogger, has against being forced to reveal sources is piecemeal, depending on the whim of whichever judge is involved. An employer might make such a claim for one of its employees under its own First Amendment free-press rights, but to me that's always a been a stretch. As a journalist and a blogger, I see nothing in myself, my colleagues or the news business that warrants special treatment by the courts -- again, absent statutory law that spells out such treatment.

3. Whatever the law says, ignorance of it is no excuse, as they say. Blogging is no different than the yahoo who handwrites, "Joe Blow is a child molester," has a bunch of copies made and sticks them under the windshield wipers at the machine shop where Joe and the yahoo both work. The fact that the yahoo knows nothing about libel law does not absolve him from suffering the consequences from his libel of Joe (I'm assuming there is to truth to the accusation and that the yahoo is is just trying to make Joe look bad).

At Tue Mar 08, 09:40:00 AM, Anonymous braingirl said...

But do you not agree that this particular case opens up some gray area? Bloggers reported "rumors" about the release of a new Apple product which turned out to be true. Apple isn't suing them for damaging their trade, they're suing to find out their sources. Who told them (so, ultimately, they can shut the rumor mill down at it's source, literally).

Do you think that bloggers (as journalists or not) have no protection at all?

At Tue Mar 08, 10:30:00 PM, Blogger Erudite Redneck said...

Why should a blogger, or a journalist -- absent a law spelling it out -- enjoy any "protection:" not afforded to the guy running around leaving home-made leaflets on windshields in the parking lot? The plantiffs clearly are playing hardball, but what difference does it make that the defendents are bloggers? Gray area? Hell, yeah. A gray universe. What IS publishing? What IS journalism? What IS libel? What IS a tort action involving this new thing called "blogging" but a tort action involving a new thing? Protection should be spelled out, for it to mean anything. We shouldn't rely on the whims of a judge, whether it's a liberal one or a conservative one.


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