Now that I’ve got your attention with the headline, one of our longtime readers sent me a link to this story in our newspaper. And wow, do I wish it had been published back in June of last year.
You’ll remember how we engaged in one of our typically healthy debates back then about Jerod Morris, a blogger who seemed to suggest in a headline and the text of his post that Raul Ibanez was taking steroids.
That spurred all type of arguing back and forth, but the more depressing upshot I took away from it was that there are thousands, if not millions of people out there who believe that blogs are not held to as high a standard as traditional media when it comes to truth and libel law and that just about anything can be written on the internet.
Not true. And the story I’ve linked to spells that out.
Let’s not get into the technicalities of what was written in the whole Morris thing again. I know some of you don’t feel that he intended to accuse Ibanez, while some of us think he tried to soft-pedal his way in there and did so sloppily. That’s ancient history and only the reminder I’m using to bring up the greater issue here.
That even though the public at large now has the power of the written word in its hands like never before, it’s a power that must be used wisely.
And once again, let me be clear: nobody has ever produced evidence or made even the most remotely substantiated claim that Ibanez has taken steroids. He is as “clean” as Ken Griffey Jr. or anyone in the game based on what we know. There is a lot we don’t know about ballplayers, but nothing we know that can tarnish Ibanez.
I’ve got to say, I continue to see stuff written on blogs about people — some public figures, some not — that I find to be skating on very thin ice.
Here’s an excerpt from today’s story.
In western Pennsylvania, a judge recently ruled a community website must identify the Internet address of individuals who posted comments calling a township official a “jerk” who put money from the taxpayers in “his pocket.” The official also owned a used-car dealership, and one commenter called his cars “junk.” The official sued for defamation, saying the comments were false and damaged his reputation.
So, in the Ibanez case, if it could be proven that Morris was accusing him, or implying that he took steroids, the same claim could be made. After all, it is illegal to possess steroids without a specific perscription for them. In this case, it would be akin to accusing Ibanez of doing something unlawful and hurting his reputation. And could a harmed reputation cause real damage? Ask Roger Clemens. Ask Rafael Palmeiro. Ask Mark McGwire. Ask Barry Bonds. How much is entry to the Hall of Fame worth to them? How much have they spent on legal bills defending their reputations? Those are real damages that could be re-claimed later in a lawsuit.
Lately, I’ve been reading blog comments by fans about certain ballplayers and team officials and their behavior off the field.
This is another area that wades into dangerous territory.
If you own, say, a convenience store and a member of a team walks in frequently and acts like a jerk and you want to say that, you’re probably on safe ground. But if you start saying too much else, like you saw him slap his wife or girlfriend, then that is a serious accusation and you’d better be prepared to defend it.
While Times policy is spelled out in the newspaper story: Seattletimes.com, like many news websites, promises to safeguard the privacy of users — including those submitting comments — by not releasing personally identifiable information to third parties. But The Seattle Times makes exceptions when public safety is at stake or when compelled to disclose user identities by law-enforcement authorities.
But that doesn’t make it a free-for-all on our site either, which is why you will often see comments removed by our editor-moderators.
And on other sites, you will often be completely on your own. Consider, again, this quote from the newspaper story.
“There’s a false sense of safety on the Internet,” said Kimberley Isbell, a lawyer for the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University. “If you think you can be anonymous, you may not exercise the same judgment” before posting a comment, she said.
And while lawsuits are usually rare and tough to follow through on, you don’t want to wind up on the receiving end of one. It could ruin your life.
Some of you have asked me about the use of anonymous sources in some of our bigger mainstream media stories and how responsible that is compared to what is written online by anonymous posters.
That’s a good question. I’ll try to answer it.
The truth is that I’d always prefer to go with on-the-record stuff. But as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, if we relied exclusively on that, you’d never find out what is really going on with the baseball team. Some people will lose their jobs if they speak. They will be shunned. And they won’t tell the truth if we don’t protect them.
In all cases, we try to use our best judgment when it comes to anonymous sources. When I can, if the info comes from a text message, I print it off so there is a written log of the conversation. Or, I tape record the conversation and transcribe it so there is a record. And I provide this to my supervisors at the Seattle Times so they are aware who did the talking in a story they are running.
But you have to limit the circle of the people who know the identity of the source. Otherwise, there is always a risk that source will be blown. I have refused in court to identify an anonymous source, back in the 1990s when I did police reporting. Did not get cited for contempt. Could have, though.
Bottom line is, we put ourselves in these positions because it is our job. Some of you do not have to put yourselves in a precarious position by spouting off on the internet.
The rule of thumb I’ve always used is, whatever I write, I have to be able to defend it to death. In print, on radio, on TV or in court.
The handful of times I wasn’t too sure? Let me tell you, that’s not a fun feeling. Usually, I come prepared. And so should you.
This isn’t meant to be a chill to keep you from exercising free speech. But there is a difference between free speech and irresponsible speech. The internet has been a free-for-all for a while now and it’s only a matter of time before a correction occurs.