By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007
When the trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice opens next week, scores of journalists are expected to throng the federal courtroom in Washington, far too many for the 100 seats set aside for the media.
But for the first time in a federal court, two of these seats will be reserved for bloggers. After two years of negotiations with judicial officials across the country, the Media Bloggers Association, a nonpartisan group with about 1,000 members working to extend the powers of the press to bloggers, has won credentials to rotate among his members. The trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the highest-ranking Bush administration official to face criminal charges, could "catalyze" the association's efforts to win respect and access for bloggers in federal and state courthouses, said Robert Cox, the association's president.
The new validation doesn't necessarily clarify the blurry line between bloggers and traditional journalists at a time when millions of people are discovering that they can project their opinions and expertise around the world with just a few keystrokes. The debates over the traditional checks-and-balances process that journalists follow are continuing, and some bloggers are resisting efforts to be put under the umbrella of the traditional news media.
"The Internet today is like the American West in the 1880s. It's wild, it's crazy and everybody's got a gun," said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland's journalism school. "There are no rules yet."
The common journalistic practices of verifying facts, seeking both sides of a story and subjecting an article to editing are honored mostly in the breach. Innuendo and rumor ricochet around the Internet as blogs link from one to another, at times making defamatory voices indistinguishable from the many others involved in this experiment of free expression.
Yet, after detailed talks with Cox, officials at the U.S. District Court decided that public awareness of court proceedings could be enhanced by his group's members, among them documentary filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor ( http://www.roryoconnor.org/blog) and freelance writer James Joyner ( http://www.outsidethebeltway.com).
"Bloggers can bring a depth of reporting that some traditional media organizations aren't able to achieve because of space and time limitations," said Sheldon Snook, administrative assistant to Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan. Snook added that some bloggers also bring expertise that is welcome in court.
Several media experts have been predicting a greater presence of bloggers in court -- as defendants. For instance, Kunkel, who is also president of the American Journalism Review, said courts might soon draw the limits of what is acceptable by imposing hefty libel and defamation judgments on bloggers, many of whom do not realize their writings can have expensive legal consequences.
According to the Media Law Resource Center, 69 lawsuits have been brought against bloggers nationwide, including a $1 million suit filed last year against Maine blogger Lance Dutson, who accused his state's tourism department of wasting taxpayer money in a promotional campaign. The advertising agency that developed it sued for libel, defamation and copyright infringement but ended up dropping the suit after advocates rallied to Dutson's defense.
Most cases against bloggers have not made it to trial. Cox, in an effort to head off suits, recently launched an initiative to raise the standards of his members through online education, holding out the prospect that they could then qualify for blogging liability insurance offered through the association.
Cox also envisions fostering an elite tier of bloggers and has been in talks with Harvard Law School about online courses associated with its Berkman Center for Internet & Society, which already offers several courses on the Web about various facets of law. By accepting the association's ethical standards and adopting an official policy for making corrections, members of this group would be credentialed by the association, which in turn would win them access to news and sporting events, advance copies of new books for review and entrance to advance screening of movies.
He had been focused in particular on working with the federal court in Washington to gain credentials for high-profile cases, starting with Libby's trial on charges that he lied to government agents and a grand jury investigating the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity.
Cox, who writes a blog called WordsInEdgewise, said he would assemble a diverse group of bloggers -- with various political outlooks from different parts of the country and readerships large and small -- to rotate throughout the Libby trial, including himself, O'Connor, Joyner and Dutson.
"The history of where blogging is going to go is not defined. It could go in a very positive direction or it could go in a very negative direction," Cox said. "We have to do more than just sit on our hands and see what happens."
The American Society of Newspaper Editors, which has endorsed a proposed federal shield law that would keep journalists from being forced to disclose confidential information in legal proceedings, has said that the shield should cover anyone involved in news-gathering activities, including bloggers.
Under Cox's plan, an online course focusing on the basics of media law would be offered in part by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a prominent journalism training organization in Florida that is interested in the issues of blogging. The organization became intimately aware this year of the pitfalls of blogging through a miscue of its own that has become a case study in the challenges that blogs face.
Poynter got sucked into the controversy following the July death of an Indianapolis Star photographer who had developed breathing troubles and collapsed in the newsroom. A Star retiree posted on her blog that management had contributed to the photographer's death because phones in the newsroom could not dial 911, something that she'd heard from staffers in the newsroom but that ultimately proved to be false.
"I was hot under the collar," the blogger, Ruth Holladay, said. "I went with what I wanted to say . . . I went with my gut."
Her entry caught the attention of Jim Romenesko, who posted a link on his widely read blog for the Poynter Institute but did not verify the story or contact the Star's management for comment. Nor was the entry viewed by an editor before it was published.
Dennis Ryerson, the Star's executive editor, said that no one blogged about Indiana's Occupational Safety and Health Administration clearing the newspaper of any wrongdoing in connection with the photographer's death. "Yet the postings that made those allegations are still available for anyone to read," he added.
The incident has prompted Poynter to revise its blogging guidelines.
Still, some of the Internet's most prominent bloggers have balked at the idea of journalistic codes of conduct, citing a 2006 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project that found that only one-third of bloggers consider their writing to be a form of journalism.
"Blogs are first and foremost a conversation, people talking," said Jeff Jarvis, a journalist-turned-blogger who created a forum called BuzzMachine.
Blogs, he said, have a "different biorhythm" where postings that are initially inaccurate or unfair are corrected online through readers comments and updated blog entries. "This is a world," he said, "where you publish first and edit later."