Sue Me, Sue You: How To Decide Who's Worthy
Union County, N.J., prosecutors demanded Tina Renna give them “the names of 16 government officials who she accused online of misusing county generators after Hurricane Sandy,” Lilly Chapa reports. Renna claimed privilege, and Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy has ordered a hearing “to further discuss whether Renna is a journalist as defined under the state shield law,” Chapa writes.The Star-Ledger came out in an editorial in support of Renna:
The Poynter post then offers, ironically, the Crystal Cox case in juxtaposition. I know nothing about Tina Renna and hold no view as to whether she's deserving of journalistic protections, though I'm happy to defer to the Star-Ledger's editors on this.That’s the challenge: If we let any blogger be covered by the shield law, so many people will claim the privilege that the exception could swallow up the rule. A line must be drawn, but the courts haven’t identified one. So it depends on the facts of each case
In this case, they conclude, “Yes, she can be a little wild, she’s not the same as a professional reporter and she drives local officials crazy. But part of democracy is putting up with Tina Renna.”
What is painfully clear to me, as a blawger, is that there is no shortage of problems and issues that arise from the medium which elude the ordinary working of the law. Threats abound. Crazies are allowed to purchase keyboards and a URL if they can afford the price. Some use them to create scandalously absurd things they call blogs, while others use them to shamelessly promote themselves.
The internet, just a few short years ago, was self-regulating. Post something stupid or crazy and someone would pound you into the ground, crush you, destroy you. It was harsh, but for the most part worked. The knee-jerk reaction to criticism wasn't to scream threats of a lawsuit. This was the wild west, and we didn't need no stinkin' lawsuits. We fixed our own problems.
Those days are gone. No, they weren't a panacea, and there were days when it was disturbing. But run to court? That's pretty disturbing too. And costly, And time consuming. And unreliable. And that's just if the person wasn't batshit crazy. You really don't appreciate how many utterly crazy people there are until you try to maintain a blog. Talk about scary.
The question of whether a blogger is a journalist is a persistent problem. The simple answer is that some are and some aren't. There are numerous definitional problems involved, ranging from what is a blog to what distinguishes a journalist in the digital age. In a sense, it's a return to the old days, before journalistic media went mainstream, and became a college course, big business and credentialed. Anyone who could put out a pamphlet was a journalist once, even though they didn't get a paycheck from the AP. Have we returned to those days, just with a different medium?
There is something to be said for journalists who are trained in the practices and obligations of their occupation. They adhere to an approach to their job, such as getting both sides of a story before publishing, even though it's more tradition than obligation. By getting a byline in accepted rag, legitimacy is beyond question.
There are no established rules for legitimacy of bloggers. I doubt many of us would really want there to be, as we're hardly clear that we would be able to pass the test. That would certainly be embarrassing. And if we tried to create some set of rules that would distinguish legit bloggers from, well, everyone else, what would they be? I've given a lot of thought to the definition, and frankly find fault with almost everything I've come up with. That leaves me with the old Potter Stewart cop-out, "I know it when I see it." That's hardly good enough.
But then, it gets tedious having to fend off every nutjob threat that comes down the pike. Sometimes I write about the threats received, and other times not. But you have no idea how often someone threatens a lawsuit. As a lawyer, I'm in a better situation both to assess the merit of a claim, and if needed, to deal with it, than many other bloggers. Others are not so fortunate, leading to the misguided sense that it's the fault of lawyers that non-lawyers are constantly threatening to sue.
Adding to the problem is the nature of the medium itself, spread around the country, spread around the world. Then there are the pseudonymous threats. Then there are the scrapers. Then there are the butthurt public officials, cops and prosecutors who add their threats to the mix. It never ends.
If we can't return to the days of the Wild West on the internet, and I believe we can't, then we need a means by which to deal with the constant stream of craziness directed at bloggers. We need a way to distinguish the real from the insane, the meritorious from the shameless from the worthless. We need a way to deal with disputes that won't be so expensive, time-consuming and burdensome as to make blogging too much of a hassle to be worth it. Remember, there's no money or fame in blogging, despite what anybody says.
But I have no clue how this should be accomplished, or even how to begin to define good and bad, rational from crazy. And yet the threats keep coming. How long before its more trouble than its worth?