Saturday, March 10, 2007

'Outing' a blogger

Down in St. Augustine, things are hopping over the newspaper's attempt to uncover the identity of a blogger critical of local politicians, specifically County Commissioner Ben Rich.

The blogger is filing under the name Lee Padgett. (The blog, from what I can tell, appears to have been restarted and scrubbed clean of previous posts, although there now is a big disclaimer at the top: I am a citizen. I am not a politician. I do not solicit or accept political contributions and I do not support the campaigns of candidates for political office. My comments are my own.)

Anyhow, the local paper, the Record, seems to have felt that Padgett was a pseudonym and that he was fronting for a larger group seeking to oust Rich. So it set about trying to out Padgett by asking people to identify him from video surveillance footage. The footage comes from the paper's own cameras in its ad department where "Padgett" showed up to buy an ad against Rich.

Let the fireworks begin:
-- Blogger Rogers Cadenhead unloaded on the paper -- as did many of his commenters -- for trying to out Padgett. I've been reading the Record for a decade. I can't recall a single time where it conducted an effort to catch a rapist, robber or murderer anywhere near the scope of this manhunt for a blogger.
-- Paul McNamara at Network World responded, saying the paper was doing the right thing. The Record, believing Padgett to be part of an organized political group out to unseat Rich, not merely a lonely pamphleteer voicing his displeasure with a public official, decided that making public Padgett's identity was the right to do. They were correct. While there may be a long-held and cherished right to publish anonymously in this country, it isn't any more absolute than other First Amendment rights and should never be confused with a right to remain anonymous. After all, there was never anything stopping the lonely pamphleteer's neighbors from saying, "Hey, that looks a lot like farmer Ben's handwriting."

I love a good food fight. In all seriousness, though, this gets at the heart of what is going to be a continuing debate -- I suspect for some time -- over speech, political speech, anonymity and pseudonymity on the Internet. Already there have been several attempts to propose ethics codes for bloggers. In a very general sense, they advocate the do no harm approach. But they all promise to largely be shells because there will always be a certain segment of bloggers who say But I am here TO DO harm -- harm to the current system that I see as corrupt, inept or otherwise in need of change.

And why shouldn't they be allowed to do that harm? (OK, treason, maybe not. But to avoid dealing with emotionally charged straw men, let's keep away from the edges for this discussion.) So in that sense, Cadenhead has it right.

However, I think McNamara also has it right in this case. The guy bought an ad. It's news. Had someone gone around the city blanketing it with anti-candidate fliers, that's also news, and the newspaper has the right to try to find out who it is and who is behind it. That is as long a cherished tradition in America as is anonymous speech. The problem really is, of course, that in at least some segment of the population the paper is seen not as a representative of the people, but as a tool of the establishment. That's a larger problem that all of journalism faces and on which books can and have been written.

The Record blew it, however, by posting video surveillance footage and asking people to out the guy. But shouldn't the paper have the right to use whatever tools are available? Well, no. I think there are still some bounds of propriety. If I go into a newspaper office to buy an ad, yes, these days I expect a video camera, but to protect the person taking the ad if I happen to pull a gun or do some other dastardly thing. We are becoming a video world, but I think there remains great uneasiness over turning our lives into one big "The Truman Show."

Using traditional shoe leather reporting allows not only for the gathering of information, but for its studied consideration. In other words, editing. Do we really have a situation of a front man? If so, then maybe, as Warner Wolf says, "let's go to the video." I fear we may be getting into an era of being a little video trigger happy, however. That we CAN do it doesn't mean we SHOULD do it. (The Record's editor, Peter Ellis, says as much in an e-mail exchange with McNamara.)

This is one more new ethical issue newsrooms need to come to grips with in the new-media era. So far, I don't see them doing it very well.

The ultimate bottom-line comment, however, comes from a response on Cadenhead's blog: Politics in the age of blogs is going to be a lot more complex.

Uh-huh. You can add journalism to that, too.

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At 3/11/07, 7:18 AM, Blogger netbuzz said...

Hi Doug: Nice roundup/analysis of the whole issue. I agree with you on the complexity aspect ... not that journalism hasn't been complex enough over the years. Thanks for the link, too. Paul McNamara.


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