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So Sue Us

For an awful instant, a political hack became an actual reporter working to discredit the president's administration by ruining one woman's career.



It's time to take a few of us bloggers to court.

As someone who loves this new medium of communication, I want to defend its potential to spur creativity and protect our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, not squelch them. On my usual beat as a blogger, that of techno culture and virtual worlds, I usually stir little controversy outside a small circle of academics and digital hipsters.

Yet for the health of this innovate way of communicating to a potentially large audience, and the health of our democracy in a time of declining newspaper readership, a reality check on bloggers is sorely needed. Let's start with the case against conservative activist Andrew Breitbart of BigGovernment.com, who posted an edited video of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod's making supposedly racist remarks about white people. To accomplish this act of character assassination, Breitbart and his ideological fellow-travelers needed little beyond a computer powerful enough to run video editing software.

Unlike most of us e-scribblers, Breitbart attracts a sizable readership, including, it seems, Sherrod's superiors in the federal government. While they may have acted stupidly in firing her without a thorough investigation, the evil lies with Breitbart and those like him posing as journalists. Such writers ignore basic precepts of the profession.

Libel is the act of defamation in print. Private citizens need only prove the printed statement sullied his or her reputation and character; public figures such as Sherrod, however, must prove that material was published with “actual malice.” In Sherrod's case, a judge would decide if Breitbart's video posting “was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”

The use of this concept, one that spares shoddy work by eager but inept reporters or editors, became well established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan.

That precedent covers what should be unbiased reporting, and it ended Dan Rather's career at CBS News after Rather defended trumped-up evidence about George W. Bush's military service. Even ardent foes of Bush, including this writer, felt that justice had been done in vindicating the president. Of course, fair is fair; we just as ardently attacked Bush when the verifiably legitimate Downing Street Memo revealed that his administration forged data to make its case for invading Iraq. Yet those incidents seem long forgotten now as the line blurs even more between editorials such as this Back Page and actual news.

Here's a juicy example of how Times v. Sullivan might punish me, were I stupid enough to claim the following as anything but parody: Yes, readers, in a shoe box in my closet I have evidence that, at a certain time and place, Sarah Palin performed a striptease for important global-warming skeptics, as well as the GOP leadership. I cannot break that as news, legally, in this or other publications (unless, of course, I actually do have such a box, which I don't). I can, however, legally question Palin's intelligence or Ken Cuccinelli's ethics, as I have previously done in this very space. That's my opinion and not Style Weekly's — read that small print at the bottom of the page — and as long as I present my targets' statements or actions in context without editing to change their intended meaning, my punditry remains protected.

Had Breitbart called Sherrod names in print without including the edited video of her remarks, any civil case against him would be difficult. What has given Sherrod grounds to sue, if she pursues that action, is Breitbart's running altered footage to present her in a negative light.

In the old days of print journalism and oversight by editors and a publisher, a writer would have been fired or, like Rather, forced to resign. But who edits a blogger? Who can fire him? Moreover, when Times v. Sullivan was decided in 1964, who beyond a major media organization could copy, splice and rebroadcast video?

Fox News picked up the Sherrod story quickly, and though the network was quick to distance itself from Breitbart, the larger picture is clear. With the Cronkite generation retiring or passing on to a saner world, we're left with mendacious midgets who come in their wake, spewing propaganda trumped up as news for Fox, the Huffington Post and other content providers. Meanwhile the ghosts of too many once-vital media outlets have veered from information into the ludic: News packaged as entertainment or fluff about celebrities replaces actual reporting that enlightens a national audience.

Breitbart might try to shield himself by noting that he's different from news organizations; as an individual writer publishing blogs and editorials for The Washington Times, he's not bound by the same standards as someone working on a city desk. Several years ago an exasperated senior editor at The Richmond Times Dispatch, while I ranted about the latest idiocy by arch conservatives in its editorial division, cut me off with a yell: “Those guys are not even in the same building with me!”

But the Internet changes that, and when Breitbart broke the Sherrod story on his blog, he scooped the traditional reporters on a potentially important story. For an awful instant, a political hack became an actual reporter, albeit a very poor one working to discredit the president's administration by ruining one woman's career.

I hope this case soon goes to court and Breitbart faces large punitive damages. This would send a message to other shills with blogs and some powerful media connections. If not, there's plenty of other defamatory material from the lunatic fringe of the right, and, sadly to this progressive blogger, from the left as well to put on trial. Handy scapegoats, from 9/11 truthers who claim George W. Bush engineered the attacks to Breitbart, deserve to answer for their actions in court.

So no, do not send me any videos of Palin dancing the hootchy-cootchy at a Tea Party rally. I will delete them.

The health of our fragile democracy depends, in part, on how well our judicial system can protect honest citizens and public servants from intimidation by political bullies with a keyboard, a Web domain and a lot of malicious intentions.

Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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