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Credentialism, revisited

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March 23, 2002

Defending the battlements A Seattle judge has jailed a 70-year-old man for writing cranky and abusive things about his neighbors on a Web site—and has dismissed First Amendment objections on the grounds that the defendant isn’t a paid professional reporter. Here’s the story, in the Seattle Weekly. (Rasff regulars will be interested to note that the story quotes, among others, Michael J. Lowrey.)

It’s entirely imaginable that the defendant’s writings are nasty and untrue. As it happens, the legal system offers many remedies for people who feel they have been materially damaged by untrue speech. But if the First Amendment applies only to officially-certified reporters, we’re all in deep trouble. (And if you think this is an isolated outbreak of that legal meme, google up “Vanessa Leggett”, the unpaid Texas writer who made the mistake of thinking she was entitled to the same protections as any other reporter, and spent hundreds of days in jail as a result.)

It’s hard to read Eric Alterman’s Nation attack on Andrew Sullivan without wondering about this. Evidently Alterman can’t just observe (as anyone might) that Sullivan frequently indulges in abusive hyperbole, or that his unedited and unbuttoned remarks on current events and personalities are often wrong in their specifics. Rather, Sullivan’s basic practice is “dangerous,” amounts to an “inquisition,” and constitutes an “illustration of the modus operandi of the ideological commissar—the McCarthyite mullah.” Yes, writing snarky remarks on your weblog is just like rounding people up at gunpoint and shipping them off to re-education camps.

“It is not as if responsible blogging is impossible,” Alterman concedes, citing Mickey Kaus and Joshua Micah Marshall as “responsible” bloggers. (Poor Kaus and Marshall, singled out by the Assistant Principal as the good kids.)

I probably agree with Alterman on the issues rather more frequently than I agree with Andrew Sullivan. I certainly agree that there are subjects (Paul Krugman, Bill Clinton) that cause Sullivan’s eyes to stop pointing in the same direction. Alterman could easily have written a piece taking apart Sullivan’s dumber remarks bit by bit. He didn’t write that piece, because his target isn’t really Sullivan. His real target is the legitimacy of self-published Web commentary. It’s a call to arms from the battlements of the credentialed. Alterman is speaking from the same worldview as those judges in Seattle and Texas who believe that legitimacy belongs only to the certified, the professionals, the insiders. So much for the egalitarian, universalising, empowering traditions of the Left. Thank you, The Nation.

In a kind of climax of hypocrisy, Alterman accuses Sullivan of a “will to censorship.” Words fail. [02:05 PM]

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Comments on Defending the battlements:

lakefxdan ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2002, 02:20 AM:

To think there was a time when I read every issue of _the Nation_ the moment it hit the college library.aaI mean, he couldn't even trouble himself to find a responsible blogger on the other side of the spectrum -- the moment he mentioned Kaus and Marshall (no matter how far from the lefty party-line either may stray), his argument deflated like a pricked balloon.

Kent Roller ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2002, 07:00 AM:

Seems to me that in Trummel's and Leggett's case, the legal nexus is getting paid to write. So if a blogger puts a PayPal Donate button on his or her site, and a few visitors pitch in, wouldn't that constitute professional (albeit low paying) journalism? Or is there some equivalent to the Bar for journalists?aaIt would be disturbing to see "Pay Me So I Don't Get Thrown In Jail For The Things I Say" buttons popping up on weblogs, because it would mean witers are acquiescing to a definition of acceptable authorship, not excercising freedom of speech.

Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2002, 10:22 AM:

Maybe I'm just a jackbooted thug, but something reads wrong, here.aaQuote:a

Management and residents at the HUD-operated facility say Trummel published unfounded accusations in a self-distributed newsletter and on his Web site.
aaSo. Mr. Trummel publishes something nasty. No problems there, unless it is untrue, in which case, it is libel. The people who were attacked by this publishing went to court, and sued, and apparently convinced a judge that this material was libelous enough to warrant a court ordered supression until the case completes, or the case was settled, and part of the settlement was a court order to cease publication of this info. Mr. Trummel was fine, until he tried to circumvent the court order -- then, he got nailed on contempt.aaThere's *lots* of things that we don't know here. But, if in fact, Mr. Trummel was publishing libel, and the courts ordered him to cease, and he refused to do so, then, well, the courts are right. If not, the courts are wrong -- and whether it is in print or online doesn't matter. aaWhat I really want to see is the whole case that this order came from. If Mr. Trummel agreed to the court order as part of a settlement, and then tried to end run it, I'm not surprised that the courts are pissed. (Courts love settlements, and hate those who break them.)aaThis bears watching closely -- since I personally thing that both freedom of the press *and* the ability to shut down those who use that freedom to publish libel are critical to a free society -- but, on first blanch, I don't buy this as an attack on 1st amendment rights.aaMore facts needed.

Chad Orzel ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2002, 05:20 PM:

It's so depressingly predictable to have The Nation attack Andrew Sullivan using exactly the sort of pundit chicanery I was recently accusing Sullivan of. I dislike Sullivan's politics and tactics, but this was not a good piece. Alterman has a point about the more hyperbolic and spittle-flecked of Sullivan's rants, but then falls into the same stupid game himself. Sullivan's actual comments are frequently asinine-- there's no good reason to use ridiculously overblown straw man arguments about "censorship" against him.aaI suppose it's good to be reminded that neither pundits nor bloggers have a monopoly on idiocy.

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: March 25, 2002, 06:11 PM:

"Freedom of the press belongs to them what own one."aaIf putting up a Web page counts as publishing, then all of us are entitled to freedom of the press.

caro ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2002, 01:49 AM:

I'm not surprised in the least by Alterman's comments. It's not like they come from an objective source. And this guy has the nerve to call Camille Paglia a raving lunatic!