Thursday, February 14, 2008

Blogs and Press Rights

A "scoop" raises questions about First Amendment protection.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 14, 2008 at 4:00 AM

How interesting that The Commercial Appeal has jumped to the defense of blogger Thaddeus Matthews, who is, according to a CA editorial, "among a growing cadre of Internet savvy communicators who are using the Internet to democratize journalism."

Such broad-mindedness! Such generosity! No doubt the CA will write the first check for the Matthews Legal Defense Fund, if and when Shelby County district attorney general Bill Gibbons subpoenas Matthews and, if he balks, asks a judge to throw him in jail for undermining the investigation of the murder of Memphis police lieutenant Ed Vidulich.

If Matthews decides to stonewall rather than give up the name of the person who gave him a transcript of an initial interview with suspect Dexter Cox, maybe CA editorial writers will join him at 201 Poplar in the name of the First Amendment. And if, a year or two from now, Cox gets out of jail because a judge or jury reluctantly decides that his case was hopelessly contaminated in the first 48 hours, maybe they'll give him a job. Otherwise, they're just blowing high-toned smoke.

This embrace of freelance bloggers, mind you, comes from the same newspaper that has cut back on reporters and offered its salaried staff part-time jobs as delivery persons in the brave new world of daily print journalism.

Matthews is the main author and founder of thaddeusmatthews.com. See for yourself what Cox said about Vidulich in his statement to detectives. The CA didn't print the "sexually explicit" details, and I won't either. The cops say initial statements from suspects in murder investigations are sometimes true and sometimes lies and often a mixture of the two, and I believe them. Before there is a formal charge and indictments that will stand up in court, there are more interviews, more witnesses, and more gathering of evidence.

Criminal defense lawyers get paid to shoot holes in weak cases. Arrest tickets, indictments, and trials are public, but much of the investigation process is not. Gibbons and police director Larry Godwin have argued that the initial interview of Cox by detectives is not public information and that its release could jeopardize the case. The CA says Matthews was "using a common journalistic tool."

Oh? I can't recall another prominent Memphis murder case where someone leaked an initial statement and it got such widespread media attention. It may have happened, but I don't recall it in 25 years. I know this much. Reporters write many versions or "drafts" of their stories before submitting them to editors, who refine them some more. I don't know any reporter who would defend the First Amendment right of a blogger to publish their notes or first draft of a story if it was taken off their computer (as is quite possible) and forwarded to someone else. It's hard enough to get mainstream papers to comment on their published stories, internal policies, and business operations. Not an exact parallel to the Vidulich case but close enough.

The same courtesy should be extended to the cops, so they can catch bad guys and lock them up. Kinky stuff happens. Cops break the law. Innocent people get questioned, charged, and convicted. The process is imperfect, but it's better than no process at all. You publish anonymous accusations and unsupported claims at your peril. You only have to be wrong in a big way or libel someone once to lose your credibility and even your job in the stodgy, old-fashioned world of "established media" that the stalwart CA editorial writers blithely lump together with the anything-goes world of thaddeusmatthews.com.

Flawed, lazy, beaten, battered, scooped, and insular it may sometimes be, but the established media still has some merits. Rules, principles, editing, attribution, corrections, and professionalism — not to mention regular salaries — still mean something. Blogs vary in content and quality. The best ones, and sometimes the not so good ones, are tirelessly updated, provocative, and sometimes freshly reported. They're here to stay. It's hard to tell who is real and who isn't, but some tipsters apparently are more comfortable dealing with blogs than with established media and our quaint customs.

Go ahead and extend blanket protection of the First Amendment to all blogs if you want, but be prepared to write a check and go the distance at crunch time. I'll pick my friends and my battles, thanks.

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