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You Know What Shakespeare Said…

Jun
22
2005

Ever since this on-line thing web logging began, there’s been a lot of talk about the quality of comments and commentary on the web. Generally speaking, reporters and salaried journalists aren’t exactly pleased to see their work reviewed, dissected, mulled over, analyzed and generally taken apart by folks working on-line. Their on-line critics haven’t held back. Not one bit.
There’s plenty of reason for all the slamming, that’s for sure. CBS’s sloppy work on the memos about President Bush’s National Guard service, The New York Times willingness to take the word of the administration and its plants when it came to Saddam Hussain’s progress acquiring and developing nuclear and other dangerous weapons are two of the best examples. And yeah, okay, that little scammer Jayson Blair.
But there’s something else at work here, too and to my reporter’s eye, it’s notable. Many of those who are the harshest in their denouncements of the media – many of the Big Boy Bloggers – have one thing in common.
They’re lawyers.


They may not practice law but take a look at the list. Instapundit Glenn Reynolds is a law professor. Markos Moulitsas went to law school. The PowerLine guys who brought down CBS are also lawyers. So is John Aravosis, the guy who outed Jeff Gannon/James Guckert, the part-time whore reporter who managed to get into the White House press room. Hugh Hewitt could hang out an attorney’s shingle. In fact, if you pull the tech sites out of Technorati’s top 100 blogs, you’re left with an good number of legal eagles holding forth (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few).
Why is this important?
Because lawyers and journalists see the world in very different ways. Lawyers like to think that depositions are the same as interviews because they ask questions. But they’re not. Interviewing someone can be a subtle process and the truth is very often stretched by both sides. Among other things, reporters don’t have subpoena power. Lawyers believe in the sanctity of the written word – they must swear the documents they file are true. But reporters know that your writing is only as good as your sources and you can’t rely on them, even on a good day after years of conversations to always tell you the truth. Oh, and yeah, while we’re on the subject there is no upside in calling someone on the carpet for lying to you if you’re a reporter. If you’re a lawyer however, it can be fun.
A lot of journalist think they’re lawyers. This is particularly true in Washington. And many, many lawyers want to be journalists; they revere the power of the press but they can’t understand why people who wield such power can’t be more accurate, better informed and more truthful. Reporters know that newspapers are often most carefully read by parakeets and puppies, not by thinking humans. Reporters may, in fact, write the truth. But not everyone is going to pay attention and often, those who are paying attention will try to have you fired for your efforts. Sometimes, they’ll succeed, too.
More frustrating for our friends in the legal profession: they have well-established and oft-articulated codes of behavior and ethics. When you screw up, everyone knows it. Reporters, well, let’s just say go back to that part about how both sides stretch the truth in interviews and leave it at that. The ways in which we do our work are as varied as our personalities, outlooks, politics and points of view. And apart from “Get the story, get it first and get it right,” there are no clear rules. Not really. There are things you do — things you say — steps you take to be ethical and fair but, well, not everyone follows them all the time at every publication in the same way. That frustrates the lawyers.
These different points of view have a great deal to do with the dismissive tone that both sides are taking in this seemingly never-ending argument. Bloggers think the “Mainstream Media” is stupid. They’re often right. Reporters think bloggers are a vicious pack of crazed political hacks. They’re sometimes right, too. But the more prosaic reality is that neither side in this argument is speaking the same language or talking about the same set of circumstances. A point of argument in a legal case isn’t necessarily a story. And a story is not – and should not – be constructed as a legal argument.
Want further proof of the validity of this observation? Every lawyer with a web site who I have mentioned this to has argued with me. And every reporter has nodded their head and smiled. Why? Because reporters know the press isn’t perfect. And they know how very much the lawyers wish it were.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 4:22 PM | Permalink

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