Thursday, September 25, 2003

Old journalism and "censoring" blogs

A little perspective on the controversy raging over the SacBee's concession that it is editing (or censoring, depending on your perspective) the blog it sponsors featuring great stuff from political columnist Dan Weintraub: The Bee has taken legitimate shots from Mickey Kaus, Glenn Reynolds, Hugh Hewitt and others, because (in part) of the paper's weak-kneed concessions to political correctness. The Bee's ombudsman has admitted that Weintraub's submissions were subject to review after receiving complaints from the Latino caucus of the state Legislature about this post:

If [the California Lt. Governor's] name had been Charles Bustmont rather than Cruz Bustamante, he would have finished his legislative career as an anonymous back-bencher. Thus there is reason to wonder how he would handle ethnic issues as governor.

And while people can debate forever whether MEChA and its more virulent cousins do or do not advocate ethnic separatism, it's indisputably true that the Legislature's Latino Caucus advocates policies that are destructive to their own people and to greater California, in the name of ethnic unity.

The Bee deserves a good roasting for its cowardice. But it's astounding that the paper had not forced Weintraub to vet his postings from the inception of the blog. I think much of the furor over the "editing" of Weintraub's posts has resulted from confusion over who's publishing the blog, and who's ultimately responsible in a legal sense for what appears in it. From my meager understanding of libel law, as a formal extension of the Bee, anything Weintraub writes on the blog -- though it's his own opinion -- potentially subjects the Bee to the same exposure for libel than would any column or news story that appears under his byline in the print edition of the paper. A statement of opinion is given a wide berth by the courts, but not absolute protection.

Just as every staff-written article or sanctioned op-ed that appears in a major newspaper is subject to "lawyering" (meaning editing) to reduce the likelihood the publication would face a libel suit, any piece that appears on a paper's Web site, or a blog owned and sanctioned by it, such as The California Insider, is also likely to undergo scrutiny to make sure nothing maliciously false appears there ... if the paper's owners are smart, of course.

Now, if Weintraub published a blog on his own time and on his own dime (say, like this one), he might be freer to speak his mind. But then he would face a different set of responsibilities. For instance, the Review-Journal has absolutely nothing to do with this blog. I'm free to say what I will. But because the blog is not the official voice of the paper, if a post related to something that's in the newspaper led someone to sue me for libel, the paper would not be obligated to offer me any legal assistance. There's a complete church/state separation in play here, to such an extent that not only must I post in my spare time, but I also cannot use the facilities of the Review-Journal to work on my blog or post from any of the paper's computers.

It's a bizarre confluence of the blogosphere, "old journalism," and the law ... and it will, I'm guessing, lead to an interesting and perhaps unpredictable evolution in the boundaries of legally permissible opinion.

BTW, if my reading of First Amendment law is way off base here, I'd appreciate feedback from those who know much more than me.

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