Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A troubling ruling

David G. Savage of the L.A. Times provides some depth in his report of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision not to review a Pennsylvania ruling that could have established a neutral reporting privilege. In the case, a Pennsylvania newspaper is being sued by a town's mayor and council president after another council member called them "liars," "queers" and "child molesters."

The initial reaction is concern that this is one more restriction on reporting. And what could be more germaine to the public interest than reporting on bizarre behavior by a public figure? But as is usually the case, and once you piece together the backstory from a couple of sources, there are some complications. First, while some comments were made in a meeting, Savage's piece indicates many of the more inflammatory ones were made in a separate interview.

In addition, a lawyer for those suing says there's more to it than just a neutral, faithful report:
Norton's lawyer, Geoffrey R. Johnson, said the paper failed to put Glenn's comments in the proper context.

"The reporter admitted he knew these statements were false. What was withheld from the story is significant information about what this reporter knew about the speaker and some of the speaker's behavior," Johnson said.
We're into some slippery territory here. If this sort of case contributes to the demise of the slap-dash "he said, she said" story that passes for news, good. But how much context is enough is an area that needs further exploration. And the law of least resistance tells us that journalists are less likely to put the extra effort into gathering and presenting proper context than they are to avoid treacherous shoals.

Pulling some disparate threads together -- this case, the Apple case against bloggers where access to information is being treated as a contract matter, previous court rulings distinguishing inactionable opinion from actionable reports of possible fact(see Milkovich v. Lorain Journal) -- it is not beyond the pale to suggest little surprise that media are moving toward punditry. After all, punditry, as long as you are careful to avoid anything that can be interepreted as fact, is theoretically less actionable. If you think about it, this is a lot like the pamphleteers who populated the landscape when the Founding Fathers were framing the First Amendment -- great for stirring a frenzy, but not necessarily so great for actually getting the news.


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