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June 15, 2009 at 11:00 AM

One more look at Raul Ibanez-blogger controversy

ADDITIONAL COMMENT 5:01 p.m.: Since many of you have asked, yes, a person who infers something about someone can also be sued for libel regardless of whether a direct accusation is made. Again, it comes down to degrees. If you make a strong inference, like raising the issue in a headline and leaving it open-ended, that can be viewed as pointing a finger at somebody. Up to the courts to decide. Hope that helps.
Since the Mariners are doing nothing worth writing about at the moment, I want to take more time to go through some of the important issues surrounding the whole controversy over Raul Ibanez and what a blogger wrote about him last week.
Many of you have written to me about what I stated in a blog post last week. I’d like to thank you all for your insights and comments, from the journalism grads and students applauding the piece, to the authors and proponents of blogs with questions, concerns and beefs. This includes the blogger who wrote last week’s Ibanez item, one Jerod Morris, who keyed a private, lengthy email to me that was thoughtful, polite and truly inquisitive in nature. Morris is standing his ground, as he has throughout this controversy, but the nature of his questions, and some of yours, is prompting me to revisit this topic in an effort to provide answers. I should note, before we start, that many journalism students and journalists, like myself, are also proponents of blogs and write our own. This should be obvious. No one is trying to make blogs go away. That would be impossible. What this entire debate has been about are the ethical standards a blog should be expected to abide by. And believe me, I’m glad we’re having the discussion, even if some of you want to criticize newspapers and me in particular. It’s high time this issue was addressed in a public forum.
I won’t address the issues expressed by supporters of what I wrote, since I have that covered already. As for those who were put off by it, the most common theme expressed is that amateur bloggers are not professional journalists and should not have to abide by the same standards. That the First Ammendment protects free speech and that imposing the standards of “investigative journalism” on bloggers is ridiculous. One blogger I truly respect and whose work I read often wrote in and asked how I could hold Morris up to such standards when he was really only writing for a small audience of fantasy-league baseball types before a bigger story by the Philadelphia Inquirer pushed it into the mainstream.
Well, my answer is, under U.S. libel law, none of that matters. You can be writing for a daily newspaper with 500,000 readers, a company newsletter of 100, or pass a note to a neighbor of yours about another neighbor. If you libel somebody, you are just as responsible and subject to damages. In some states, you will have a chance to rectify the damage by apologizing, but when something goes out over the internet like this — to an audience in multiples states and countries — your chances for protection are reduced. Anyhow, the point is, under the law, bloggers have no greater protection than newspapers.
This is something most journalists were properly trained about before starting or very early in their careers. The fact that so many bloggers are now insisting in public that their work is not meant to be taken as seriously as “real journalism” shows me they do not understand the dangerous waters they are treading.
Here’s a primer on U.S. libel law and how it relates to blogging, in case you’re interested. It should be required reading for any blogger in this country.
If you get sued for libel, your defense can be “the truth” — that what you wrote is true — or that, even if what you wrote was false, you did not act with malice. In Canada, where I began my career, the law is much tougher and states that your stuff had better be true, or you’re in hot water. It’s a bit more lax here in the U.S. with the whole “malice” thing.
The U.S. Supreme Court has defined malice as publishing something with “either knowledge of falsity or in reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.”
So, when Morris writes a headline to his piece that states: “The Curious Case of Raul Ibanez: Steroid Speculation Perhaps Unfair, but Great Start in 2009 Raising Eyebrows” it would, in theory, be up to the courts to decide whether Morris showed regard for the truth if sued by the ballplayer. I don’t know about you, but if I was squaring off in court against a ballplayer worth millions, with a full legal team at his disposal, I might be a little nervous about this piece. After all, what’s stopping Ibanez from arguing that Morris — not knowing the answers to the questions posed by his own blog — simply threw the “steroids talk” into his headline in reckless fashion, not caring whether or not it was true?
I’ll leave it to the legal scholars to thrash that one out. Point is, if you’re Morris, or some other blogger doing this with no budget or on a shoestring, you probably won’t have the funds to defend yourself against somebody with the resources to try to make a case.
Beyond the whole legal aspect, there is also an ethical one to consider.
Had Morris simply limited his work to an analysis of ballpark factors and stats, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today. But then, he raises the steroids talk, which throws his whole thesis into the realm of subjective, rather than objective, work.
How happy do you think the baseball fans of Seattle would be if I, or U.S.S. Mariner, or Lookout Landing, wrote a piece that substitued Ichiro’s name for that of Ibanez? I guarantee you, a headline reading “The Curious Case of Ichiro…” would keep me in blog hits and angry letters for months.
So, why is Ibanez “fair game”? Because he’s older and having a better-than-average season? So is Ichiro, putting arguably his best campaign since 2004 together. And even if Ichiro was only performing as consistently as he ever has, there have been players who perform consistently over a period of years that took steroids the whole time. So, what’s to stop us from lumping Ichiro in with the guilty? Sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? Well, not according to the logic of those defending Morris.
And for me, that’s just wrong.
There has to be a limit. And to me, where you start pointing fingers at individuals and naming them next to the word “steroids” that crosses the line. It’s what Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports likely meant when he used the word “decency” in his televised debate with Morris last week. As journalists, we are taught to push limits, and we do. But there is a line of decency you try not to cross.
Many of you asked me about a blog item I posted in February that seemed similar to what Morris wrote. My blog stated:
You know who I thought of first today when I heard of the A-Rod allegations? Bill Bavasi. Yes, that’s right. Let me explain.
A lot of the subtext of what’s come out in today’s report is that all those 104 players caught in the 2003 drug-testing sweep were essentially told they had a year to get themselves off drugs before the punishments became more severe. In other words, by 2004, a lot of those players “juicing up” likely got off their steroids and played the game clean. (Some may have gotten on to HGH, but we’ll assume some were clean).
Then, along comes Bavasi to run the 2004 Mariners. All of a sudden, a 90-plus win playoff contender from 2003 plummets to a 99-loss season. The offense drops off a cliff. Is there a connection between those drops and the stiffer drug testing? We’ll probably never know for certain. All I know is, Bavasi inherited a team that — for whatever reason — fell off the planet. I’ve never heard him complain about it. But I have heard other GMs talk about how much tougher it became to sign free agents and plan your team around the past performance of hitters starting with that spring of 2004.

Now, this may seem like the same thing to a lot of you, but there are important differences. The most obvious is that no individual was singled out. Believe me, this was intentional. There are ways to approach topics like this, to hint at stuff that may or may not have been going on, but it requires subtlety, not a sledgehammer.
What I wrote still gives every player on that 2004 team an “out” in which they can say: “It wasn’t me he was talking about.”
And that’s important, both in terms of ;legality for libel purposes and also for ethics. What I suggested — is that some members of the 2004 Mariners may have taken steroids. And really, that’s no different from the commonly accepted facts that we know about MLB from previous failed drug tests, books on the subject, the Mitchell Report, and so on. We know by now that a percentage of players in MLB were taking PEDs. And by extension, we can all assume, based on the percentages and facts, that each team probably had, at a minimum, a handful of players using.
So, a story that suggests, in broad terms, without naming anyone, that some members of the 2004 Mariners might have stopped using steroids is not altering the commonly accepted view. But narrow it down further, you’re asking for trouble. If I’d written that “23 of the 25 guys were probably using” or that “all the backup players were juicing” that would be a huge difference. It seriously reduces the “out” factor you’re giving players who might be innocent.
It’s a tricky thing to navigate. But it’s probably why not a single player from that 2004 team has complained to me or my paper about what was written. Contrast that with the angry reactions after Shane Monahan accused practically the entire 1999 Mariners squad — other than Dan Wilson — of taking some type of PED. Monahan didn’t give anybody except Wilson an “out” and the reaction was angry and predictable. (As an aside, newspapers did cover/repeat the allegations by Monahan, but would not be subject to libel as long as the reporting was fair and even-handed. We covered the story and tried to contact as many former players/officials as we could and gave their opposing views prominence equal/greater to that of Monahan).
Some of you might not like that explanation, but there it is. There are limits to the generalities and specifics you can get into with stories, or blog posts, like these.
When I speak of journalism “training” being needed for bloggers, I’m talking about stuff like this. Not that they should all go to journalism school — though it’s a great place to have these ethical discussions beforehand. Many of my colleagues, though, majored in other subjects besides journalism. I worked for two papers professionally before enrolling in j-school. There is “on-the-job” training that can be useful as well. Where you start off tackling smaller projects before moving on to big issues like steroids and ballplayers. Where you are trained in the basics of libel law and ethical standards. Where you have layers of editors and legal advisors around to oversee your work and go over all of this stuff beforehand.
I don’t know of a serious newspaper that would allow a rookie-type, twentysomething reporter to go at a topic like Ibanez and steroids and get it published with the language that was used in the Morris headline and text. Maybe somebody will find an example online, but believe me, it’s extremely rare if you can find it.
Some of you have asked why I — and my collegues — failed to denounce Rick Reilly for publishing similar things about ballplayers that Morris did. Well, the first answer is, many of my colleagues did denounce Reilly several years back when he challenged Sammy Sosa to take a drug test. Many thought he was unfairly singling Sosa out.
My second answer would be: Jerod Morris is not Rick Reilly.
Many of you get upset when journalists flash their credentials, or give you — as I did last week — firsthand accounts of prior stories they’ve written. When I do it, it’s to give you firsthand insights into a subject, not to brag about achievements. Every journalist I know has at least one humdinger of a firsthand account they can list. A guy like Reilly, at the top of his profession for years, easily has some that can trump mine.
And trump that of a 27-year-old, rather inexperienced blogger like Morris. Folks don’t like to hear that. They’d like to think that anybody in the country who can write is just as good as an experienced columnist like Reilly, Bill Plaschke, or others. When we “flash credentials” it tends to dispell some of that false notion and likely makes some people feel a little insecure. I can’t help that. It is what it is. In the case of Reilly, he has been allowed the leeway to push the limits based on years of firsthand reporting and interraction with players, scouts, coaches, managers, executives and others who work in the game of baseball. You develop a certain expertise on subject matter when you do that.
And that’s why his magazine allows him to venture into uncharted territory like this. But believe me, he can’t simply do whatever he wants. And everything he writes gets scrutinized, second-guessed and run through a legal department before it goes to print. And some pieces he writes will turn out better than others. You can cover all the bases and still mess up. Still do a disservice to people.
Who was Jerod Morris accountable to before he published his blog? What expertise did he bring to the subject matter, other than the usual “bar talk” one hears?
I’ve had people write in to ask me about my so-called “White Jays” series of three stories written for the Toronto Star six years ago. What those stories were supposed to be about was how the Blue Jays, after years of pipelining talent from Latin America, had suddenly become a team with the fewest amount of minority players in baseball. At a time when the number of Latin Americans in the game was exploding.
But the reasons behind that story were lost because of a terrible “White Jays” headline, substituted at the last minute as a front page teaser to the stories, without my consent, or input, or that of the editors working closest with the story. And headlines, as we see from the Morris episode, do matter. The paper’s ombudsman apologized for the headlines, but exonerated the story. I received apologies from the paper’s top editor as well as its publisher at the time for the heat I took defending the paper and the stories.
Frankly, all these years later, I would not have let myself off so cleanly. If I was the ombudsman, I would have criticized my use of the word “white” in the stories and the decision to focus on skin color rather than country of origin. We all thought we had the facts nailed down and we did. The players were predominantly white on that team and growing in number at a time when the face of the game was changing to become more non-American. And on a team that historically, had been among the game’s leaders in Latin American talent. It was indisputable. But we learned from those stories that using the word “white” is not the same as using “black” for issues as sensitive as those. Bring up “white” and there are terrible connotations to “white power” and “white supremacy” and everyone goes nuts.
Instead, when we did a follow-up to the story in September 2005, we left out all references to skin color and merely focused on the countries of birth of the players involved. And, as predicted back in 2003 — in our main premise to the story — the Blue Jays were still among the least globalized of MLB teams at a time when baseball was going global. They remain that way today, as we predicted they would, for a variety of reasons. But those reasons were lost back in 2003 because of a poor decision to group players according to skin color rather than country of origin. When that follow-up was published, we received praise for our thoroughness in researching the subject. Virtually no one had a complaint about it. We’d expected some backlash, but got zero. And we knew why right away. It seems so dumb today. But it took us nearly two years to zero in on that subtle difference between “country of origin” and “skin color” being — along with the inflammatory headline — the main problem.
So, yes, none of us is perfect. I can still “look people in the eye” as far as the goal of that series and whether the reporting covered it. I would, however, do plenty of things differently today. But even our headlines and approach back then did not go as far as what Morris wrote. It would be as if we’d printed “racism can’t be ruled out” in our headline. Of course it can’t be, but we aren’t mind readers and that would be even more unfair than “White Jays” was as a headline.
So, I hope that answers some questions on a difficult 2003 topic and one that many of you rightly raised.
We can go on and on. Yes, there are mainstream writers doing more to push the limits and if you do a Google search, you’ll probably find a dozen cases the past four or five years of some senior writers venturing into Morris territory. I’ve been asked why I didn’t criticize a blog item by former New York Times writer Murray Chass from two months back that brought up the name of Mike Piazza. My simple answer is, I did not see it or hear about it, probably because there was not the outcry that followed the Ibanez item.
Now that I’ve seen it, I do not think Chass should have published it. In fact, Chass admits he tried to have the same thing published by the Times and that he was rejected. So, he took the item and posted it to his personal blog.
This is the type of thing I worry about. That more and more people will take stuff that can’t make it into papers because of legal and ethical concerns and simply “run with it” in blogs that can be read by the same millions of people.
And as I’ve already shown you, blogs are held to the same standard by law as newspapers are. Where this gets dangerous is that, now, because of technology, we have thousands of amateur “newspaper” equivalents running around, with the potential to bulldoze over laws and ethics, with little thought given to it beforehand.
And really, you probably don’t want to rely on the whole “Johnny threw the snowball first!” line of defense. Not in the fifth grade schoolyard when you’re being hauled away to the principal’s office, or in a courtroom. I’m astounded at how many reasonable, intelligent people are now resorting to it in this debate.
It doesn’t matter that Morris is a self-proclaimed Ibanez fan. He still wrote something potentially damaging about him. And he — and many of his supporters — appears to have no clue about how wrong it was.
One reason I didn’t mention Morris by name at first was that I didn’t think he deserved the credit and blog hits for something so reckless. Now, after hearing his personal explanation, I feel he’s just somebody who didn’t know any better. But I still won’t link to his story and the reason why is simple. And it’s something that I’m sure is also not known by many of those rallying support for him.
If you repeat a libel, you risk potentially being held just as responsible as the initial transgressor. A man by the name of Richard Jewell reinforced that notion just 13 years ago, but somehow, the lessons he taught have been forgotten in this new online age.
Jewell was initially named a suspect in the 1996 fatal Centenial Park Bombing at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Once cleared of all wrongdoing, Jewell sued a handful of media outlets who named him, rather aggressively, as a criminal suspect and he wound up settling out of court with several before his death. But I remember at the time, legal memos being passed through my newspaper and others around the U.S. and Canada warning that even reprinting wire stories from the Associated Press on the matter would potentially leave us open to legal action. Jewell scared the wits out of media around the country because of that.
But today, how many bloggers — and even newspapers — linked to the Morris post on Ibanez without even thinking about it? Again, the law hasn’t changed. There is a certain degree of responsibility — decency — expected from those who publish words and utter them over the airwaves. And that includes repeating a libel.
Many readers pointed to a Joe Posnanski column written last week and stated that it was one of the best takes on the issue. I enjoy Posnanski’s work and can see why so many folks, primarily bloggers, liked last week’s column: he didn’t really hold anyone responsible. He sort of points a finger a Morris on the steroids thing, but then seems to blame MLB players for putting themselves in this situation. Well, no. It was Morris who put himself in this situation by strongly suggesting something he cannot prove and didn’t prove in his text.
And I don’t think the answer is to have Ibanez take drug tests — what will that really prove? — and become a rallying force within the players’ union. Even Posnanski admits that’s somewhat of a pipe dream and frankly, Curt Schilling already said several years back that he was willing to become that galvanizing anti-PED force amongst players. How’s that working out?
Instead, I’d suggest the more realistic route is for bloggers (heck, even reporters and columnists) to familiarize and re-familiarize themselves with the issues we’ve spent the past few days discussing. To realize that, amateurs or not, anyone who writes is venturing into the public domain and can be held accountable. And that, maybe, those who are more new at this should not bite off more than they can chew. That it might be easier on them, or anyone, if they limit the snark and repeating of “bar talk” when it comes to the serious stuff that delves beyond statistical analysis. That the “pushing of the envelope” is still vital in any democracy, but should not be done haphazardly.
Or, they can wait for somebody like Ibanez, or another player, to sue them into oblivion and help re-define the standards that way. I opt for the easier route of improved self-policing. Not censorship on tough issues. But also not taking the easy way out on the laws and ethics in-place for going at controversial subjects by simply ignoring them and throwing stuff out there in the hope some of it sticks.
Because trust me, what Ibanez fired off last week was a serious warning. It might not come from him, but some player, somewhere, is going to make an example out of some writer who gets too reckless with the facts. Whether it’s a seasoned pro, or a “basement blogger” just starting out. And I agree with that. It’s not because I, or most of my colleagues, feel threatened by the “blogging” world. Many of us have learned to interract with bloggers, even those we vehemently disagree with. But I also don’t want to work in a world where the gossip of the day can be spun by anyone into accepted, printed fact with no recourse. We’ve been heading down that road at breakneck speed for a while now and somebody, somewhere will have to find the brakes. Because it will get ugly for those involved in the crash that’s coming. All I’m saying is, you might want to try to make sure it isn’t you.



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