May 1, 2013

When is a blog not journalism?

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The right to anonymously publish political commentary without government oversight is one of American journalism’s most sacred tenets, but now that blogs abound, the lines are being blurred.

Dennis Bailey’s Cutler Files, has been refused journalistic status and anonymity along with it. Seth Koenig in the Maine Sun Journal writes that the website, which in 2010 anonymously criticized Maine gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, had a Maine Ethics Commission fine upheld late last year by a federal judge.

The judge considered that Bailey’s blog failed to qualify as journalism, as it was apparently set up to target just one candidate. Further damningly, according to Koenig, Bailey was a paid campaign consultant for Cutler’s opponents. The Maine Ethics Commission, in administering the fine and fighting for it to be upheld, argued that Bailey’s identity had to be disclosed in order that readers could properly assess his biases.

Using the anonymity allowed them by the Constitution, The Portland Herald‘s editors at the time condemned Bailey’s site as being far from journalism.

“Bailey continues to claim that the Cutler Files was a legitimate project, even though he and Rhoads went to absurd lengths to hide their involvement. We would describe the website more as disgraceful than legitimate or useful, but we’ll play along by posing a question: If they truly believed they were distributing fair-minded, accurate information about a major candidate in a crucial statewide election, why didn’t Bailey and Rhoads identify themselves and take responsibility for the material they were promulgating?”

In her decision, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen followed the Herald’s logic and wrote,

“The website was established for the sole purpose of advocating the defeat of a single candidate for election, and it was published immediately before an election by an individual working for an opposing candidate…As such, it rightfully did not fall within the press exemption for a periodical publication.”

Without having read the full judgement (unavailable as of Tuesday evening), this case seems to offer a small insight into how the courts may treat political blogs in the future. Although, who’s to say that Fox or MSNBC don’t fail Torresen’s test under this reasoning—for good or ill, they’re just as relentless in the pursuit of their political enemies, although hopefully not as directly paid by their friends.

 

 

Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.

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