All the news, fit to print or not

November 13, 2006

Partisans sometimes describe the world of Internet blogs as the new neighborhood back fence, where people can talk about what’s on their minds. The blogosphere, in this cozy image, is the latest spot where folks share new information and ideas, and the conversations through which community is created take place.

So when are blog postings properly considered news? After all, news too consists of information that’s novel and interesting. But does it also have to meet standards of significance and veracity — and fairness ¾ that go beyond the usual blog fare?

Last month an enterprising gay activist — who says he’s committed, in the name of “truth, honesty and openness,” to forcing prominent gays out of the closet — posted an item on his blog. He claimed that a politician of some national renown had had sexual relations with at least three men. The activist said he had spoken with them and taken steps to confirm their claims; he did not identify them.

But the activist did repeat the allegations on a syndicated radio show, and the whole affair was being yakked about on the Web.

(For reasons that will become clear, I’m not naming anybody involved in this scenario.)

Now suppose you run a newspaper that serves this politician’s home base. What do you do? These are sensational claims about the extramarital sexual behavior of a prominent official, a conservative Republican who has many constituents who disapprove of homosexuality. The allegations are unsubstantiated, and it’s not clear what they have to do with the man’s performance in office. But they are getting attention.

The response of local news organizations is instructive, if not inspiring. A blog affiliated with one 100,000-circulation newspaper posted the allegations, according to a post-mortem on the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a well-regarded journalist training center.

Having reported the allegations on the Web, the paper decided it couldn’t ignore them in print, and published them, with a denial from the official. Three other newspapers also reported the allegations. Nobody tried to find out if they were true.

The upshot: potentially damaging, but unverified, assertions of interest to the public, floated by a blogger of unknown credibility, had made their way into the press as legitimate news.
Said one of the editors: “If our reporters had uncovered this information, it’s unlikely we would run a story. However, because this information is already circulating through other media, it’s a different situation.”
The response was reminiscent of the 2004 incident when blogger Matt Drudge ran a rumor about John Kerry’s amorous entanglement with a young woman. Mainstream media sneered, but reported the tale anyway, reasoning that true or not, its currency on the Internet made it impossible to ignore. (The story was false, and Drudge apologized.)
On one level, the logic is unassailable. If a political community is aflutter with gossip, and it’s influencing how people think and act, how can a paper that aspires to cover that community ignore the talk?
But on another level, the logic is grotesque. Journalism’s job isn’t just to record and pass along back-fence scuttlebutt, even if a lot of people overheard it.
That’s essentially how a second editor explained her decision not to run the rumor. But she also said: “Many of [the politician’s] supporters would not vote for him if they knew he was homosexual. … So I think it is an issue. I’m willing to spend some resources to find out if it’s true [he is gay].”
That’s fine — or is it? This raises a second question. How aggressively should that burning question be pursued? How acceptable is it to allow a gay activist to stampede news media into making an official’s private sexuality public? Besides, how much does it matter if the politician privately doubts — or privately flouts — the conventional morality he steadfastly supports as public policy? Isn’t it his public consistency, rather than any private purity, that people are entitled to vote for or against?
Outing has become a weapon of gay rights advocates; they like to expose secretly gay conservatives as hypocrites. But consider the other side. What if the closeted politician were publicly pro-gay? Why wouldn’t his anti-gay opponents threaten to out him to expose the private ties that are dictating his public actions?
Not only would outing have returned to being a weapon of the blackmailer and the homophobe, but virtually any public utterances pertaining to morality and values could be used to justify open-ended, intrusive reporting.
And the shrinking realm of privacy would take another step toward vanishing

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